Posted Wednesday 9:00 p.m. Effective July 2008, professor of geology and geophysics Derek Briggs will assume the role of director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History for a term of five years, University President Richard Levin announced this week. Briggs will replace professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Michael Donoghue as director.
The announcement comes at a time when the museum is in transition. As it continues to digitize and upgrade its collections to make them more accessible, the 200-year-old museum is also making an effort to reach out to some community members — especially undergraduates — who currently have little interaction with the museum.
Briggs said his vision for the museum — expanding community involvement and helping the museum transition into the 21st century — overlaps with Donoghue’s, but Briggs also hopes to embark on new projects of his own, he said.
“He’s extraordinarily knowledgeable, and he’s a visionary leader,” Donoghue said of Briggs. “He’d be a natural person to follow up on what I was doing.”
Briggs said expansion plans for the Peabody are an important component of Yale Tomorrow — a $3 billion, five-year campaign the University launched last fall to strengthen and build upon Yale’s resources.
One of his goals as director, Briggs said, will be to build a complex — which would house an auditorium, a new display space for museum artifacts and a cafeteria — in the space behind the Peabody and adjacent to the Environment Center and the Geophysics and Geology building. The complex would help make the museum more inviting for visitors and members of the Yale community, he said
Expanding the museum’s holdings to the new Yale West campus will also be among Briggs’ priorities in his new post, he said.
“The West campus has come on the horizon very recently,” Briggs said. “It will allow us to expand our research, education and conservation activities on a much grander scale.”
The West campus will provide a space to display artifacts the Peabody cannot permanently showcase in its present building, he said. The Peabody’s collections total more than 11 million artifacts — of which less than 1% can be displayed at any given time.
In September, the University bought a 137-acre plot of land spanning the towns of Orange and West Haven that formerly belonged to Bayer HealthCare. The plot of land — known as “Yale West” — contains 550.000 square feet of laboratory space and cost the University $109 million.
Briggs said the Peabody may also be able use the nature trails around the Bayer complex as a educational tool that would allow New Haven school children to observe nature up close.
The plan is part of the museum’s larger effort to engage more effectively with the community.
While the Peabody has jumpstarted several initiatives involving New Haven residents in recent years, undergraduate involvement with the museum remains low, Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Geology & Geophysics Department Jay Ague said.
Ague — who will serve as acting director of the museum during the fall 2008 semester while Briggs takes a six-month sabbatical — said he hopes to create more opportunities for undergraduates taking courses in the sciences to use the museum as an educational tool during his term as director.
But the staff has a lot of work to do in the museum itself, Briggs said.
The Great Hall of Dinosaurs, the centerpiece of the museum, will soon be redone — possibly with new technology such as interactive computer kiosks, he said.
The renovation effort goes hand in hand with the long-term goal of bringing the museum into the modern era, Ague said. Donoghue began the process of digitizing the museums collections during his directorship, but the process is still underway, he said.
Creating a catalogue of the museum’s collections will allow the museum to conduct research more effectively, including on global warming’s impact on ecosystems, Briggs said.
Ague said the museum is also working on opening a new exhibit — the Hall of Mineral Earth and Space — that will provide visitors an integrated view of the Earth as a system. Ague said he hopes the exhibit will be completed early next year.