Yale has always been one of the most respected school in the humanities, but as recent administration initiatives indicate, Yale is poised and determined to make an equally strong name for itself in the sciences. Yale now gives likely letters to science and engineering students and is building a new library and student center for engineering. However, one of the most distinguishing aspects of Yale’s science program continues to be ignored: the Peabody Museum of Natural History.
As a history of art student, the Peabody is not a resource as vital to my education as the art galleries, but it is still an issue that I feel needs to be addressed. I visit every museum I can, and have even worked at one of the most popular natural history museums in the nation. But I have never left a museum more disappointed than after my first and subsequent visits to the Peabody.
The Peabody was originally established as a resource for students, scholars and casual visitors to be enthralled by ground-breaking discoveries in science. Historical photos of the early museum show crowded display cases filled with hundreds of specimens. Yale and Sheffield students were able to access its collections in the same way that we still access those of our art museums and libraries today. Over the centuries, Yale scientists have tirelessly collected specimens that rival and surpass the collections at Harvard’s Peabody and Natural History Museum or Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. The Peabody used to be a physical encyclopedia of the natural world.
Today it serves more as a place parents take their kids on a rainy day. Students and faculty rarely use the museum as a second classroom; nor does the museum provide intellectual stimuli to the student body. While some courses do take advantage of the Peabody’s amazing collection, neither the general public nor the student body has easy access. Instead, the items are available only to a select group of researchers, scientists or students. The most common interaction students have with the museum is as a place to volunteer or work. It has long lost its connection with educating Yale students.
Currently, the museum’s exhibition space represents the conjunction of different interests that ruin the usefulness of both the collection and the museum itself. Unlike the Yale University Art Gallery, Yale Center for British Art, Yale Libraries, and even the all but forgotten Yale Instrument Collection, in recent history, the temporary exhibitions do not have any scholarly notoriety or provide intellectual stimulation within the University. They are expressively targeted to appeal commercially to the very young. The exhibitions “Invasion of Bloodsuckers” and “Black Holes” are shows that are fit for a local shopping mall, not one of the nation’s most highly regarded museums. They do not display any notable pieces from the Peabody’s or any other collection. “Bloodsucker” comprises six large plastic sculptures of the “bloodsuckers” coupled with reproduced photographs and text that provides. “Black Holes” had only digital displays save for a sculpture. They often include no more information than what one would expect from a 1984 edition of the Illustrated Encyclopedia Britannica. It is obvious that the main goal of the temporary exhibits is to provide the development team yet another poster to bring in paying visitors, with little regard for quality.
This profit-hungry attitude also extends to the museum’s birthday party programs. Listed under the heading of “Education” on its website are prices and descriptions of the party package one can buy for $250-280. The room called an “auditorium” is almost exclusively used for parties and, despite being one of the largest rooms in the museum, remains empty of content besides an Olmec head and a religious drawing by indigenous Australians. This insensitive juxtaposition is just one example of cultural artifacts displayed as kitsch in the museum. The Egyptian collection is displayed in a Disneyesque environment with the showpiece of the exhibit, the mummified human remains, located in a fire exit hallway. It focuses more on the allure of lost treasure than cultural understanding. I realize that the Peabody desires to connect with people of all ages and reach out to the local community, but I do not see its current exhibits as a proper solution.
There are plenty of ways to revitalize this institution. First, I have no doubt that there are many people willing to make a substantial contribution for this purpose. Most of the galleries need to be refurbished, refocusing on the treasures and strengths within the collection. As Harvard’s and Oxford’s museums show, the exhibits that have the longest lasting value are those that include more objects from the museum’s collection rather than extensive textual material that too quickly becomes outdated. The museum should utilize student volunteers to convey the most recent scholarship on the objects through lectures, talks and tours like those that are very popular in Yale art museums. It costs very little to alter a tour compared to renovating a hall. One thing that all museums in the increasingly digital age should shy away from is the use of gallery space for videos, interactive games or databases. These displays waste floor space when visitors would be more likely to seek them out on the museum’s website. People do not want to travel all the way to a museum to watch a video or play a computer game. They are there to actually see the items, to touch the past.
Finally, the University should use the museum to Yale’s advantage. Showcase the hundreds of discoveries and breakthroughs made by Yalies, as they do at the MIT Museum, and foster the same wonderment and awe that Harvard’s Comparative Zoology museum does. Actively pursue professors who are doing exciting research to share it with the public and the Yale community in a unique way. I know that many more potential science students would be excited to attend Yale after seeing an exhibit that shows the groundbreaking research of any of Yale’s faculty, and, in the spirit of the plaque that rests outside the museum entrance, perhaps it would inspire other Yale students and future Yalies, too.
Thomas Burns is a junior in Morse College.
An earlier version of this column misstated Thomas Burns’ first name.