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 last 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 increasing its effort to reach out to some community members — especially undergraduates — to strengthen the museum’s relationship with its surrounding community and attract a wider, more diverse audience to the museum’s exhibits.
Briggs said his vision for the museum — which includes 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 — the $3 billion, five-year fund-raising campaign the University launched last fall to strengthen and build upon Yale’s resources.
The museum is key to the campaign because it makes the range of science offerings and resources at Yale available to the community at large, said Jay Ague, director of undergraduate studies in the Geology and Geophysics Department. Ague will serve as acting director of the museum during the fall 2008 semester while Briggs takes a six-month sabbatical.
“The Peabody — perhaps more so than any other part of Yale — brings together the University and the city,” Ague said. “It’s a much more crucial link than people realize.”
To help the Peabody fill this role more effectively, Briggs said University officials plan to erect a building 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 a more inviting space for visitors and members of the Yale community, he said.
Space also currently limits the museum’s appeal to visitors, Briggs said. Expanding the museum’s holdings to the new Yale West campus will also be among his priorities in his new post, Briggs said.
“The West campus has come on the horizon very recently,” he said. “It will allow us to expand our research, education and conservation activities on a much grander scale.”
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.
The West campus will provide a space to display artifacts the Peabody cannot permanently showcase in its present building, Briggs said. The Peabody’s collections total more than 11 million artifacts — of which fewer than 1 percent can be displayed at any given time.
Briggs said the Peabody may also be able use the nature trails around the Bayer complex as an educational tool that would allow New Haven school children to observe nature up close.
The plan is part of the museum’s larger effort — dubbed Engaging the Community — to interact with the community more effectively.
“Creating stronger partnerships is essential to attracting and involving communities that do not have a museum-going tradition and to building ownership in an institution that may seem unwelcoming,” Donoghue said.
The Peabody has jump started several initiatives to engage New Haven residents in recent years, including Fiesta Latina, a multicultural celebration targeting the city’s Latino population that was inaugurated in 2003.
As a result of such efforts, the museum’s audience is largely local, Donoghue said — half of current visitors to the Peabody hail from the Greater New Haven area, and an additional 42 percent come from other parts of Connecticut.
But undergraduate involvement with the museum remains low, Ague said. He said he hopes to create more opportunities for undergraduates taking courses in the sciences to use the museum as an educational tool.
The staff has a lot of work to do in the museum itself, including addressing current exhibition strategies, 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 modernizing the museum. Ague said updating the exhibitions to make them more user-friendly and entertaining is among the staff’s top goals. Donoghue began the process of digitizing the museum’s collections during his directorship, but the process is still underway, he said.
Creating a collection catalogue will allow the museum to more effectively conduct research on topics such as global warming’s impact on ecosystems, Briggs said.
Ague said the museum is also working on new exhibits that will attract a wider audience to the museum. One upcoming project — the Hall of Mineral Earth and Space, an exhibit about the Earth as a system — will be completed early next year, he said.