The huge apatosaurus skeleton in the main hall of the Peabody Museum of Natural History is regularly flanked by crowds of astonished, excited children. Just one specimen from the great variety of artifacts that fills the museum halls, the apatosaurus is, by far, the museum’s largest attraction.
Yet the specimens displayed at the Peabody represent less than one percent of the approximately 14 million objects held by the museum’s curatorial divisions. Due to the constraints a large collection puts on a small museum, many rare and valuable treasures, from ancient Mayan art to the first fossil discovered by man, remain inaccessible to the public.
Ecology and evolutionary biology professor Leo Buss, the curator in the museum’s invertebrate zoology department, identified the abundance of the specimens as the first and most obvious reason why so many artifacts never see the light of day.
“You simply can’t show them all,” Tim White, assistant director of collections and operations of the museum, said.
According to both Buss and White, some of the specimens, such as rare sponges, lack the visual appeal necessary to capture the public’s attention. The sponges’ research value is based on the observation of microscopic spicules on their surface, Buss said.
Yet some of the specimens not displayed are both visually interesting and scientifically significant. The museum owns the world’s largest collection of cycadeoids, a completely extinct group of plants, Curator of Paleontology Leo Hickey said.
“We have spectacular glass slides revealing the anatomy of these plants,” he said. “We also have the first recorded fossil that has ever been collected by human beings.”
With a name that sounds like a space alien, foxtail aminoids — large, crab-like creatures with two shells and large spines — also lurk in the Peabody’s backrooms.
The museum has specimens from places where collection is now impossible due to natural disasters or civil unrest, Susan Butts, collections manager of invertebrate paleontology, said.
Despite admitting that some very valuable artifacts are not on display, Hickey and Butts agreed this is not necessarily a problem.
“A museum is not bound up to what is on display to the public,” Hickey said.
Richard Burger, the curator in the anthropology department, said he was more concerned than his colleagues about the Peabody’s lack of space, which causes some displays to be sacrificed for newer material. Burger said that a very interesting collection of ancient Mexican art, including Aztec stone sculptures and Mayan pottery pieces from Costa Rica and Panama, used to be on exhibit but was taken down for lack of available space.
“The reason why there isn’t enough space is that the Peabody was planned at the very beginning of the century,” he said. “People then had completely different notions of what a museum should be and the collections were much smaller.”
The administrative offices which are located on the second floor of the museum building should be moved somewhere else, Burger said, so that the space can be opened up to exhibits. He also suggested building additional wings onto the museum.
Both White and Buss said the museum is currently experimenting with a rotating display system. Presently the museum is running an exhibition on giant squids, for which a life-sized model of a giant squid that has not been on display for several years was reinstalled.
“There are some things that don’t change, like the dinosaurs, but there is a significant amount of short term exhibits,” Buss said. “The public part of the museum is not a static entity.”
And even if the entire collection is not accessible to the general public, much of can be viewed by Yale students for educational purposes. The accessibility of specimens to Yale’s academic community improved since the Environmental Science Center’s 25,000 square foot expansion in 1997.
The creation of new work rooms and study rooms that are close to the collections eliminated the need for the specimens to be moved to distant classrooms, Hickey said.
Yet even more improvement is needed, Buss said.
“If you asked me about the priorities of the museum, I would not ask for more square feet of public space in the museum, but for more undergraduates to become familiar with what we have,” he said.
Buss’ seminar, the “Natural History Collections of the Peabody Museum,” attempts to help solve the problem by familiarizing students with the scientific value of the exhibits. Students receive a hands-on experience of the collections as they explore scientific problems related to specimens of their choice.
Melody Lu ’06 is one student who took the class last year.
“Through this class we got to know the treasures of the museum,” she said. “We explored the huge storage spaces and got to hang out with the collections managers, which was really fun.”