Peabody events attract more New Haven families than Yalies

The auditorium on the Peabody’s third floor was filled to capacity for “Atka the Wolf,” a presentation by the Wolf Conservation Center. The talk, which sought to dispel negative myths about wolves while raising environmental awareness, featured an Arctic wolf who serves as an animal “ambassador” for the WCC.

“We’re trying not to become a zoo,” joked David Heiser, head of education and outreach at the Peabody. “But live animals are always a draw.”

Events like “Atka the Wolf” do attract New Haven families­ — on Saturday, young children and their parents packed the room. Few Yale students, however, were visible in the crowd. Possible reasons for the discrepancy range from competition with art museums to a lack of on-campus advertising, but whatever the cause, it seems that the Peabody means different things to different demographics.

Heiser sees the Peabody as Yale’s “welcoming front door” for the New Haven community.

“A lot of families maintain a connection with Yale through the museum,” he said.

The Peabody’s event subscription e-mail service, which was started a year and a half ago, now goes out to about 4,000 people every week, he said. The museum’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event and “Fiesta Latina,” a day-long celebration of Latin American cultures, can draw up to 1,500 people.

Despite these successes, students said the Peabody Museum has a lower profile on campus than the art museums on Chapel Street. Sophia Emigh ’06, who now works at the Peabody Museum, said that as an undergraduate she knew little about the museum’s activities beyond its exhibit work.

“There are so many events on campus like Master’s Teas and performances that undergraduates like to attend, but many Peabody events are geared more towards younger children or professional scientists,” Emigh said in an e-mail.

Tanya Marton ’08, a molecular biophysics and biochemistry major, said the institution’s science focus might be one reason why it has trouble competing with the Chapel Street museums.

“Modern science is not happening in a museum, whereas modern art is,” she said.

Heiser said that the Peabody serves both the Yale and New Haven communities, but that it is difficult to compare its value to each. Yalies’ interest in the museum largely focuses on its value as an academic resource, he said.

“I would say we’re split, I don’t know how equally,” Heiser said. “We serve Yale in a lot of different ways, not through our public programs so much as through our collections.”

Of the approximately 85 staff members at the Peabody, about half work in the museum’s permanent collections, he said.

Last semester’s course offerings included an undergraduate class based on the collections — “Collections of the Peabody Museum,” taught by ecology and evolutionary biology professor Leo Buss.

“My CPM course was motivated by a desire to have students [interact with] the primary specimens at the Peabody Museum, as they give a rich sense to the material underpinning of the scientific process,” Buss said in an e-mail. He is curator of invertebrates at the Peabody Museum.

For students less interested in the academic value of the collection, Emigh said greater advertising could go a long way in raising awareness of the museum.

“I’m sure many undergraduates would come to events at the Peabody if they saw the right publicity on campus,” she said. “If they knew about it as a volunteer opportunity, I bet many Yale students would also be interested in volunteering at events.”

Emigh noted that the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day program and the Fiesta Latina, which combine educational purpose with entertainment value, are good opportunities for Yale students to get involved.

Heiser agreed, saying that the museum illustrates the intersection between science education, research and entertainment.

“There’s a fine line between education and entertainment, and if you can do both at the same time, you’ve achieved something memorable,” he said.

The next event at the Peabody, “The Theology of Art and Writing in Ancient Egypt,” will take place on Saturday at 1:00 pm. It will be led by Colleen Manassa, acting director of graduate studies in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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