The Museum of Natural History occupied the upper floor in Rhode Island Hall. Mention of a college “museum” had been made as early as 1790, when George Washington was reported to have been entertained with a visit to the museum. In 1795 the Corporation voted its thanks to Mr. Jones Welch of Boston for “a preserved bird called the Curlieu of Cayenne, and a Calabash curiously wrought by the natives of Cayenne, to be deposited in the Museum.” In 1829 a gift of items from the Sandwich Islands, including paddles, dresses, and a carved wooden image, was deposited in the museum by Captain John Jennings. In his first report as president in 1869, Alexis Caswell expressed the need for a proper museum, but there was no money available for such purposes. In 1871, a former student with an interest in natural history, John Whipple Potter Jenks 1838, on resigning as principal of Pierce Academy, offered his services in connection with the natural history collection. If Caswell would raise money to install two cases in Rhode Island Hall, Jenks would fill them at no expense. This he did by shooting birds and small mammals, which he arranged in the cases along with whatever minerals and shells the College had already accumulated. His exhibition was well received, but not well enough to be rewarded by an appointment or a salary. Caswell was able to raise $1,100 from friends and hired Jenks. By working for the United States Fish Commission without pay, Jenks was able to acquire marine specimens for the museum. He also purchased 4,125 bird skins from ornithologist John Cassin of Philadelphia, using his own money, and traded some of them with Louis Agassiz for other specimens for the museum. In 1871 the family of the recently deceased Dr. William Blanding 1801 deposited his cabinet of minerals, shells, fossils, relics and coins, numbering 7,769, in the museum. A collection of over a thousand insects was received from the Reverend David Weston 1859. Jenks reported in 1873, “It is intended that the museum shall contain specimens illustrative of every branch taught in the institution ... It is also desirable that the finer duplicate specimens of the unmounted birds should be mounted to the number of two or three hundred each year. This labor can be gratuitously performed ... by such students as are desirous of spending a portion of their recreation time in acquiring the art of taxidermy.”
After the addition to Rhode Island Hall in 1873 provided more room for the museum, Jenks, still without funds for the Museum, added a few cases paid for by donors, and, by soliciting ten dollars each from seventeen persons, was almost able to meet the cost of $190 for mounted skeletons of a horse and a buffalo acquired in 1875. A fine walrus skin was obtained in 1878 as the parting gift of the senior class. The next year the Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry transferred to the museum a collection of Syrian and Egyptian implements along with the earliest carding machine and spinning-frame in this country, which was used by Samuel Slater. Funds for the Museum continued to be a problem. In 1882 Jenks offered to contribute two hundred dollars in each of the next five years. He later retracted this offer, feeling that his obligation had been more than satisfied by the fact that the University did not reimburse him for expenses above that amount which he had already incurred.
In his annual report for 1892 President Andrews noted, “The Old Museum of Natural History now exists in two parts, the Jenks Museum of Zoology and the Museum of Anthropology, either of which is more valuable for educational purposes than the whole was before.” However, after the death of Jenks in 1894, no more funds were appropriated for the curator or the assistant, and the Museum was no longer viewed as an asset. In 1905 Professor Albert D. Mead repeated an appeal for $1,000 for the maintenance of the anatomical and zoological material used in teaching, while he conceded that “the reasonableness of spending money for the dusting and rearranging of the miscellaneous curios of a university junk shop for the gratification of a few straggling sightseers is, we readily admit, not obvious.” A year later it was reported: “The requirements of the museum were met in an unexpected and unintentional manner, - during the spring term a fire, starting in the basement and almost immediately breaking out in the walls at the top of the building, scorched or burned much of the material in the museum cases and in the attic. ... This was not an unmitigated calamity. It solved many perplexing questions ... The central cases have been removed to the rooms of the geological department, the respectable and semi-respectable specimens have been cleaned up and many minor improvements carried out.” When the Biology Department moved into Arnold Laboratory in 1915, Rhode Island Hall was assigned to other departments and the contents of the Museum were put into storage. In the attic of Van Wickle Hall, the basement of the former Library (now Robinson Hall), and in Arnold Laboratory the once admired specimens continued to deteriorate until Professor J. Walter Wilson became chairman of the Biology Department and took matters into his own hands. Failing to receive permission to discard the material and unsuccessful in offering it to the Roger Williams Park Museum and the Audubon Society, he was finally able to receive permission to store it elsewhere on University property, if he could find a suitable place. The site he selected was a dump on the banks of the Seekonk River, where 92 truckloads of stuffed birds and animals, reptiles, and bones were conveyed. Some years later one survivor, a stuffed albatross, was found in the attic of Van Wickle Hall.