MCCOY: In praise of the Peabody

In his column in the News Sept. 22, Thomas Burns is very critical of the Yale Peabody Museum. Although Thomas’s factual conclusions are largely inaccurate and his opinions idiosyncratic, his column does demonstrate the need for a clear understanding of the Peabody’s real value. Hopefully I can contribute to this effort.

Let me begin by addressing Burns’ puzzling statement that “… neither the general public nor the student body has easy access [to the Peabody’s collections]. Instead, the items are available only to a select group of researchers, scientists or students.”

Actually, any interested party can access the collections by emailing a professor or museum curator! The Peabody’s curators love sharing their field with others and welcome interested visitors. For example, when I wanted to see a coelacanth (an anachronistic denizen of the deep ocean), I just had to wander over to the zoology collections and knock on the door.

Burns goes on to assert — apparently extrapolating solely from his own experiences — that “students and faculty rarely use the museum as a second classroom.” I have had quite the opposite experience; in four semesters, eight of my classes have made extensive use of the Peabody. The auditorium (which Burns assumes is “almost exclusively used for parties”) houses regular seminars often showcasing groundbreaking research by Yale professors. About 25 faculty members are voluntary curators of Peabody collections, countless graduate students base their research at the museum, and undergraduate students are engaged at every level — working, volunteering, research and more.

Perhaps the most troubling part of Burns’ column is an unsettling point of view illustrated by his comment that “Today [the Peabody] serves more as a place parents can take their kids on a rainy day” and that “the museum’s exhibition space represents the conjunction of different interests that ruin the usefulness of both the collection and the museum itself.” He goes on to criticize “videos, interactive games and databases,” while simultaneously suggesting that we eliminate text, replacing it with increased lectures and tours. In short, Thomas wants the museum to be pristine and scholarly, a 19th-century institution that appeals to the rarefied sensibilities of Yale students rather than to a “conjunction of different interests.”

Burns’ suggestions, while presumably well intended, would create a museum aimed only at people who do not need the help of text and video. This is the exact opposite of the inclusive ethos of the Peabody, which welcomes all curious people, regardless of their level of education, and uses every available tool to provide a pathway into the excitement and mystery of its vast collections.

An excellent example of this multi-layered, inclusive approach is the Peabody’s exhibit “Invasion of the Bloodsuckers,” which Burns peremptorily dismisses as “six large plastic sculptures … coupled with reproduced photographs and text.” Actually, the exhibit includes mounted specimens and multiple tanks of living bloodsuckers. The “large plastic sculptures” are anatomically accurate models created by Michael Anderson, a Lanzendorf Prize winner and preparator at the Peabody, whose exquisite work has been mentioned and cited in numerous publications. He spent countless hours examining these unique arthropods under a microscope to create models contrasting their alien form with that of familiar, macroscopic life. When I visited the exhibit, three graduate students were examining the models and enthusiastically discussing research ideas, while a crowd of fascinated children surrounded them to hear more. At the Peabody, it is OK to think bloodsucking insects are cool!

(Burns also criticizes the Black Holes exhibit for including only digital displays and a sculpture. Apparently, the plans to include an actual black hole were derailed due to concerns that general relativistic time dilation effects might cause any students who came too close to the event horizon to be late for class.)

I agree with the suggestion that several galleries be refurbished. Alas, contrary to Burns’ charming but naive assertions, few people are willing to give substantial funds to the Peabody. Nonetheless, plans to renovate the Great Hall of Dinosaurs are well underway, and the museum recently refurbished the now breathtaking Hall of Minerals.

The Peabody is not a musty mausoleum dedicated to the privileged intellectual; it is a living, breathing, exciting institution that welcomes people from every background and provides a fascinating experience for the intellectually curious of all ages. There is much to learn if one comes ready to perceive rather than preach — please visit; we would love to see you.

Dakota McCoy is a junior in Branford College and a student curatorial assistant at the Peabody Museum.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    I came as a seven year old “ready to perceive” (as much as a sven year old CAN perceive) 60 years ago and was entertained by nine jars of dead babies (while RCC anti-Planned Parenthood protestors knelt on the sidewalk of Orange Street saying the Rosary a few block away, an exhibit (and juxtaposition) I have remembered with fascinated horror and dismay all these years. (Why are these dead babies entertaining us, Mommy?)

    Read my unanswered and unacknowledged letter to the Director of the Peabody 18 months ago about the matter:
    http://theantiyale.blogspot.com/2010/02/open-letter-to-derek-e-k-briggs.html

    Paul D. Keane

    M.Div. ’80

    M.A., M.Ed.

    • River_Tam

      Paul,

      Maybe nobody’s responding to you because it’s ancient history and not relevant to this (or any) discussion.

      Love,
      River

  • RichardBribiescas

    Well said. Indeed when I taught Anthropology 116a, Introduction to Biological Anthropology, which had an enrollment between 150-200 students, some laboratory sections were based on students visiting the Human Evolution exhibit and gathering data and information for their assignments. I know that I am not the only faculty who benefits from the Peabody in this way. The Peabody is a vibrant course asset for both faculty and students. By the way, the Cenozoic garden is looking fantastic!

    In regards to school children coming to the Peabody “on a rainy day”. Absolutely. Bring’em on! The Peabody is a New Haven treasure that should be shared with children who might not otherwise benefit from the scientific and scholarly treasures of Yale. As a kid growing up in South Central Los Angeles, my visits to the Museum of Natural History in Exposition Park as well as the La Brea Tar Pits near downtown L.A. had a huge impact and role on me becoming a scientist. Kudos to the Peabody! Keep up the great work.

    Richard G. Bribiescas, Professor & Chair
    Department of Anthropology
    Yale University

  • The Anti-Yale

    River,

    You presume incorrectly my preferred audience is current matriculants at Yale. Actually, I’m aiming a townies (or Yalies) who recall what I’m talking about 60 years ago. There are a few of us around. One such instance was my recollection of and tribute to my former Hamden High School history teacher of 1961, Carol Holt (Mrs. Philetus Havens Holt IV) Even though she had left our planet, her descendants read my post and posted me in return. A missive across the decades.

    His Peabodiness (not akin to busybodiness), Derek E. K. Briggs has been too terribly engrossed in the minutiae of the Peabody’s present life to respond to my letter which has collected dust for 18 months now; Still, I press on, hoping a peer from my past might have seen the same exhibit and be reminded, wish to comment.

    PK

    When one is on the wrong side of 66, one tends to live in pursuit of the past.

    • River_Tam

      Paul,

      When you post something deliberately off-topic from the column at hand in order to co-opt the audience of the YDN for your own purposes (as you have pretty much stated you are doing), this is called “spamming” and is considered poor online etiquette.

      Love,

      River

  • The Anti-Yale

    It MIGHT be Spamming if I were an outsider, not molded for nearly seven decades by the very university and its relationship with the town which I am critiquing.

    I consider His Peabodiness, *(Derek E. K. Briggs, Director,Peabody Museum of Natural History;Frederick William Beinecke Professor of Geology and Geophysics;Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology)* not answering a letter for 18 months poor on-line or off-line etiquette, not my resorting to posts on a *YDN* article about the Peabody, to raise my concerns.

    BTW I sent that letter both land mail and email and as an Anti-Yale post. There is ZERO possibility he did not have an opportunity to read it.

    Perhaps if I had had an answer I would not have resorted to this very “seventies” act of guerilla theatre: Remember Jerry Ruben appearing as a defendant at his Chicago Seven trial with a silver platter on which he had placed the severed head of a pig? I’m sure you don’t.

    Insulated as he and Yale are in their Ivy League Vatican, His Peabodiness,neither acknowledging nor replying to a letter that which I sent him eighteen months ago (not only as a native of the town but as a graduate of the University) is yet another example of Yale snobbishness.

    I am not impressed.

    Paul Douglas Macintosh Keane

    M. Div. ’80

    M.A., M.Ed.

    • River_Tam

      No, it’s spamming even if you are an “insider”. Repeating an off-topic point to try and redirect discussion is spamming, even if you were the President of Yale University.

      • The Anti-Yale

        I detest Spam. I would prefer to be Hamming or Bologna-ing. Spam is so food-stampish.

  • The Anti-Yale

    PS:

    I find it noteworthy that dear Derek, AKA His Peabodiness, is too busy throwing parties for the Peabody BIRTH ROOM to answer my questions about the 60-year-old Peabody DEATH ROOM.

    Further, it is fascinating that after two years of posting on this matter in the *YDN* and *The Anti-Yale*, I have yet to discover a single *YDN* reporter who seems to have found Peabody’s DEATH ROOM a noteworthy story, while the *YDN* can devote unlimited space to hypothetica DATA about abortions and Sex Week.

    Real cadavers of zygotes, embryos and fetuses on display in a Yale Museum for years is not a worthy of a *YDN* columnist or reporter’s attention, but hypothetical DATA about abortions and
    clumsy and/or bullying Yale undergraduate mating rituals AKA ‘hook-ups” are worthy of quite a bit of *YDN* space.

    My. My. My.

  • The Anti-Yale
  • AndromedaWaits

    Nice article. I really want to see that Bloodsucker exhibit.

  • JColosi

    Cody, nice piece. I’ve also written a reply to Burns at my blog for anyone who is interested:

    http://www.thelifeyouandineverknew.blogspot.com/2011/09/shape-up-burns-misses-peabodys-pulse.html

    Jordan Colosi ES ’09

  • kayers

    Dakota, this is a lovely response, thank you. I felt a little ill after reading the original letter attacking the Peabody, and I am heartened to see your answer. I would add that the Peabody serves the needs of scientific literacy for the community as a whole also, city school kids and students from other local universities also exploit these excellent resources. The outreach department also does an amazing job of bringing science to local fairs and festivals, luring children into learning through play. You penned a much needed and eloquent letter. Thank you.

  • jglass6

    Thank you for this great response!