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.

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