Lost Museums: A Symposium on the Ephemerality & Afterlives of Museums & Collections

MAY 6 – 8, 2015


Held in conjunction with the year-long exhibition project on Brown’s lost Jenks Museum, the symposium addresses the history of museums from a new direction: not their founding, but their disappearance. We know a great deal about how museums are born and how new collections come into being, but not nearly enough about how these fragile institutions pass out of existence, how artifacts decay and disappear as times and interests change.

What happens to a collection when once-prized objects are no longer seem valuable? Or when ethical standards shift, as in the movement to repatriate cultural artifacts to the peoples or nations from which they were taken? How and why are specimens and artifacts deaccessioned or traded away? How do changing ideas about the evidentiary, educational, and research values of artifacts affect what seems worth saving? How do wars, natural disasters, and other cataclysmic events shape collections and impact institutions of heritage, preservation, memory, and knowledge production? What can we learn from museums that have been forgotten and then revived in a new cultural context? Is permanence a virtue, or might we embrace notions of ephemerality in museums?

We received about 180 proposals from six continents addressing these questions. From that impressive pool, we have invited 30 presenters to join us in Providence May 6-8, 2015.


A selection of papers from the Symposium was published as a special issue of the Museum History Journal  in 2017: Volume 10, Issue 1. Access here. 

The Lost Museums Symposium is generously sponsored by:


Department of History, Brown University

The John Carter Brown Library

Dean of the Faculty

Edna Lawrence Nature Lab

Department of Science and Technology Studies, Brown University