As a child, David Skelly fell in love with the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History after beholding the skeleton of a massive turtle displayed in its Great Hall.
Now, nearly two months into his term as museum director, Skelly is leading multiple initiatives to improve the museum he has known for decades. Skelly took office on July 1 after 14 years as curator of vertebrate zoology at the Peabody. With the Peabody’s 150th anniversary in 2016, his goals for the museum include renovating many of the exhibit halls and improving the museum’s relationship with the undergraduate community.
“The Peabody is a great museum, but there is a pretty high fraction of it that hasn’t changed since I was a kid,” Skelly said. “It’s like trying to use a mid-century biology textbook to teach people modern biology — you wouldn’t do that. This problem would be really helped along if we could unleash the incredible work of the people here who have already designed some incredible renovation plans.”
In 2013, Skelly’s predecessor Derek Briggs readied plans to renovate halls and double the number of pieces on display, but the efforts were slowed by the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis. Skelly said he wants to prioritize restarting the project lead by Briggs and has already met with potential donors. He added that project will not begin until all the funds are raised.
In a Wednesday email, Briggs said there is an “urgent” need to bring the Peabody up to the standard of the Yale Center for British Art and the Yale University Art Gallery, both of which were recently renovated. The Peabody has raised half of the $30 million required for the renovations, he said.
“[The renovation] will restore the Peabody to its rightful place internationally as a unique destination with up-to-date exhibits that Yale can be proud of,” Briggs said.
Apart from their renovated exhibit halls, Skelly said the Art Gallery exemplifies how to use tour guide programs to increase the interaction between the museum and Yale College. Skelly said he hopes to create a community of undergraduate tour guides at the museum, in addition to bolster a sense of community for the roughly 50 undergraduates who research and work at the museum. He also hopes that Peabody will offer programming for undergraduates, similarly to how it plans events for local school children.
In April, a group of artifact repatriation experts criticized the Peabody for antiquated Native American exhibits. Skelly said the Peabody is in dialogue with Yale history professor Ned Blackhawk to refine the museum’s representations of Native American cultures.
“We are very anxious to deepen our relationship with the [Native American] cultural center,” said Skelly, adding he hopes to seize the opportunity to look at all exhibits, many of which are decades old.
Skelly’s students said he is skilled at collaborating with individuals from all disciplines.
Doctoral candidate Mary Rogalski FES ’15 studies zooplankton in Skelly’s lab. Although zooplankton is outside of Skelly’s specialty — most researchers in the lab work with amphibian populations — Rogalski said Skelly is adept at integrating her work into the rest of the lab, an interdisciplinary flair that will hold him in good stead at the Peabody. She added that Skelly helped collect her data for experiments with his own rowboat, an act that for Rogalski demonstrates his hands-on nature.
“One of Dave’s biggest strengths is that he is very curious about a lot of things and understands how things fit together, and that helps at the forestry school where it is a very interdisciplinary setting,” she said. “I think the same thing will be true at the Peabody. He is very good at communicating complicated information to the public.”
Skelly has played an active role in exhibit curation at the museum, said David Heiser, head of education and outreach at the Peabody. In 2009, Skelly was the lead curator of an exhibit that celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of Species.”
Heiser said Skelly’s first act as director was to meet with Peabody staff members and administrators, a gesture that Heiser said speaks volumes about his leadership.
“We have close to eighty staff here from the public and collections side, and that takes a lot of time, which I personally really appreciated,” Heiser said.
Skelly is currently serving a five-year term as Peabody director.