Peabody courts undergraduates

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

In Yale College Dean Mary Miller’s freshman address on August 24, she urged Yale’s newest scholars to embrace learning, pointing to the vast resources available in the museums on campus. But seven months after that sweltering day in Woolsey Hall, one major resource would remain unexplored by most of the freshmen.

Only 31 of 100 freshmen interviewed had visited the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, in comparison to the 83 who had visited the Yale University Art Gallery. When asked about the most significant barrier to attending the Peabody, students responded overwhelmingly that they either did not have enough time or that the museum, located on Science Hill, was simply too far away. The Peabody is free to members of the Yale community, though is unique among Yale museums in charging admission to the general public.

While the Peabody offers in-depth research prospects, diverse lecture series and volunteer outreach opportunities, few undergraduate students take advantage of these opportunities. But those students who do report meaningful mentorships and research opportunities and often cite their work with the institution as one of their most valuable experiences at Yale.

Over the past decade, the Peabody has made strides to connect with the undergraduate population. While Peabody administrators say they are satisfied with the museum’s current relationship with undergraduates, they continue to work on improving the connection.

“Of course, life at Yale is generally incredibly busy,” said Peabody Director Derek Briggs. “All that said, we are very keen to increase student involvement with the museum in any way we can. After all, that is a major part of our mission.”

The great undergraduate extinction

Daniel Tovbin ’17 is a science major and often passes the Peabody on his way to classes on Science Hill. Tovbin cited the Peabody’s location — and lack of time — as the main reasons he has not visited the Peabody.

Although Sinclair Williams ’17 was urged recently by his English professor to visit the Peabody, he still does not know where the Peabody is located or what exactly he would find there. Forty-one percent of surveyed freshmen said they would be unable to find the location of the Peabody on campus without a map.

Halsey Robertson ’17 said she did not even know it existed until the end of first semester. Kugan Sivamuni ’17 was one of the only 27 freshmen to know a shuttle stopped directly at the Peabody.

“Regardless, it’s still on Mars,” Sivamuni said.

At the Yale University Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art, undergraduates compete for coveted spots as tour guides. At the YCBA, student tour guides get to create their own tours and even have the opportunity to fashion their own exhibits. While anybody can serve as a tour guide at the Peabody, no undergraduates currently serve as guides, said David Heiser, head of education and outreach at the Peabody.

“The friends I have dragged to the [YCBA] have always appreciated the exposure,” said Emily Feldstein ’16, a YCBA tour guide. “It provides a different atmosphere than being in the dorms. It is definitely a part of Yale but it also functions as a space beyond. If each guide can reach out to three friends, that’s 75 people who wouldn’t have gone.”

Yale’s other museums, particularly the YUAG and YCBA, are working to attract Yale’s science community. Last semester, the YUAG inaugurated the STEM + Arts initiative, an effort aimed at bringing science-minded students to the exhibits. All first year students at the Yale School of Medicine are required to take a class at the YCBA that hones their observational skills.

Kevin Lih ’14 leads science tours for the Undergraduate Admissions Office. There is no scripted mention nor any stop at the Peabody Museum on this official science tour, although the museum is within sight on the tour. By contrast, Directed Studies is scripted on the science tour, Lih said. Tour guides sometimes mention the Peabody in relation to prospective research possibilities when providing anecdotes in the unscripted parts of the tour, he added.

Ayaska Fernando ’08, the director of Science, Technology, Engineering and Recruitment for the Admissions Office, said the decision to add the Peabody to the script rests with undergraduates, who write the scripts. Fernando said STEM recruitment weekend does feature a behind-the-scenes tour of the Peabody for admitted students.

Heiser said many of the museum’s annual events are tailored to young children and not undergraduates, though the events provide the opportunity for undergraduates to volunteer.

“The museum has such a strong outreach program, especially for primary school students,” said William Gearty ’14, collections assistant at the Peabody. “However, this outreach never really reaches the undergraduates that are not directly associated with the museum. The collections are constantly being used for new projects on campus, but people outside of the ‘Peabody bubble’ never think of it as a resource of information, merely a museum to see nice and often old things like dinosaurs.”

In grappling with engaging the undergraduate population, the Peabody is not alone.

The Harvard Museums of Science and Culture — an umbrella organization of four of Harvard’s museums — face many of the same issues with undergraduate involvement, according to a recent report. In the fall, Harvard hired undergrads Haley Adams and Sara Price to study the relationship between the museum and the student body.

The report states that the two primary barriers to undergraduate engagement on Harvard’s campus are a lack of awareness and a scarcity of opportunities targeted towards students. The fellows propose museum literacy — the ability to interpret a curated exhibit as one may deconstruct a literary passage — as an invaluable skill all undergraduates should learn before their departure from campus.

According to HMSC director Jane Pickering, Harvard will be conducting exit surveys with this year’s senior class and, for the first time, will include questions discussing student attendance of museums on campus.

As a former staff member at the Peabody, Pickering said she notices the same passion and willingness to work with students among the Harvard and Yale curators.

Price said she hopes that Harvard undergraduates entering in fall 2015 will have a pre-orientation program about museum resources. She added that she hopes to create a group of undergraduate student liaisons to bolster the relationship between undergraduates and the museums.

At Yale, working to link undergrads

With one month until commencement, Jenny Dai ’14 said she is currently buried in her senior thesis and has yet to create her Yale bucket list. While she has been to all of the major museums on campus, she has still yet to visit the Peabody.

“The main reason that I haven’t been to the Peabody is probably because I’m not that interested in science,” Dai said. “I know distance might be a common thing [preventing people], but I’ve had plenty of classes in that area.”

Although some students interviewed echoed Dai’s sentiment, Director of Public Programs at the Peabody Richard Kissel said natural history museums are accessible to a wide audience, and that the Peabody in particular is very much an interdisciplinary institution. Curators and staff often see art students sketching or students taking inspiration from the specimens in the halls, he said.

Over the past 13 years, the Peabody has increased its efforts to introduce more specimens from the collection into the classroom, Briggs said. Last year, over 1,000 students used Peabody materials in over 75 different undergraduate courses at Yale, compared to 400 students in the 2000 to 2001 academic year. Although many of these courses included the typical suspects — ornithology, mammalogy, and ichthyology — but humanities and social science courses, including women’s gender study classes and Afro-American studies, also used Peabody specimens.

The Peabody also brings students to its collections. The freshmen and sophomore seminar “Collections of the Peabody Museum,” most recently offered in 2011 by professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Leo Buss, allows eight students to engage in independent studies of Peabody collections. Recent topics have included the Giant Squid, the evolutionary history of flowering plants, the form and function of seashells, the Galilean moons of Jupiter, and the arrangement, orientation, and function of Stegosaurus plates.

Buss plans to bring the class back after in the fall of 2015, after having taken a break to teach the introductory course in ecology & evolutionary biology.

This intimate connection with Peabody resources was transformative for many students in the course. Harvard postdoctoral fellow Mary Caswell “Cassie” Stoddard ’08 earned a Marshall Fellowship to study zoology at Cambridge after studying plumage at the Peabody.

Another “Collections” student was Cody McCoy ’13, who called the class her best at Yale. The seminar inspired her to continue researching at the Peabody for the rest of her time at Yale. For McCoy, who is now studying zoology at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, the Peabody is more than one the best natural history museums in the world — it is also a community of the genuine, friendly, supportive and brilliant people. McCoy said the museum is underutilized by undergraduates on campus, adding that professors across the University should learn from the classes that make extensive use of the Peabody.

“Since the day Chris [Norris, collections manager for Vertebrate Paleontology] opened the door, literally and metaphorically, I haven’t looked back,” McCoy said in an email.

William Gearty ’14 began working at the Peabody in the spring of his freshman year, and is now using many specimens from vertebrate paleontology collection for his senior thesis. Gearty said undergraduates can access the specimens with nothing more than an email to a collections manager.

On Saturday April 5, the Peabody hosted the Night at the Museum, the first ever after-hours event for undergraduates. Night at the Museum featured a museum wide scavenger hunt and attracted over 100 undergraduates. Event coordinator Angela Chen ’16 said the event was a success, helping to create a stronger relationship between the Peabody and undergraduate community.

“A lot of undergrads can’t attend tours or events at the Peabody that are from nine to five, so we wanted to open up the museum for a fun event that was after hours,” Chen said.

Bhart-Anjan Bhullar ’05 fell in love with the Peabody during his second semester at Yale when he took a graduate course based at the Peabody. Research on lizards sent him to Mexico over spring break, and Bhullar said he forged many lasting relationships with his peers.

Since his graduation from Yale, Bhullar said he has noted an influx of undergraduates researching and learning at the Peabody, largely due to the “Collections of the Peabody Museum” seminar. Still, he said, more can be done to increase undergraduate presence at the museum.

Next summer, Bhullar will return to the Peabody to work as a researcher. Bhullar plans to teach a class for undergraduates where students will have the opportunity to use CT scanners to research the specimens.  He added that he hopes that he can help to create a program much like the Directed Studies program for freshmen at Yale that could be centered on involvement at the Peabody.

“If there isn’t a constant pulse of students running through its halls like blood cells through veins, then it is dead, lifeless and no more than a husk of what it should be,” Bhullar said. “I think we have to understand that the necessary risk of having an active and open collection is to occasionally lose or break a specimen and that that is fine if it maintains the life of the museum.”

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