James Post

On Saturday, before an audience of 300 people at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, a panel of experts associated with Yale, the Peabody and the Barnum Museum of Bridgeport, Connecticut, opened a mysterious red, leather-bound Samurai box and examined its contents.

When the Barnum received the box in 2003, no records or documentation came with it, and for 12 years curators left the box untouched, according to Adrienne Saint-Pierre, curator of the Barnum. The audience marveled and made audible gasps as Catherine Sease, senior conservator at the Peabody, and Saint-Pierre reached into the box and brought out, piece by piece, a complete set of Samurai armor. Even though Saint-Pierre asked Quinnipiac University’s medical diagnostic imaging crew to take X-ray scans of the box beforehand, the objects were too dense to be properly imaged by portable equipment. Until the unveiling, no one was certain what was inside, Saint-Pierre said.

“The reason we wanted to do this as a public program is so that you all can be like a fly on the wall and see how a group of experts really looks at something for the first time,” Saint-Pierre said to the audience.

Aside from Sease and Saint-Pierre, the experts included Roger Colten, senior collections manager in the division of anthropology at the Peabody, Fabian Drixler, history professor, Robert Wheeler, Emeritus applied physics and physics professor and Kathy Maher, executive director of the Barnum. The panel, after inspecting the Japanese family crests — called mons — on certain pieces of the suit of armor, said they suspected that the suit in the box is actually an amalgam of parts from different suits of armor. Their initial assessment dates much of the suit to approximately the mid-1800s, said David Heiser, head of education and outreach at the Peabody.

The idea for this event sprung out of Saint-Pierre’s visit to the opening of the Peabody’s “Samurai and the Culture of Japan’s Great Peace” exhibit in March. At the exhibit, Saint-Pierre saw boxes displayed before Samurai armor that were similar to the one the Barnum owned.

“I thought this might be just the opportunity we need to assemble a group of people that is very knowledgeable about this material and help us with it,” Saint-Pierre said.

She then contacted Richard Kissel, director of public programs at the Peabody, and Heiser, both of whom were excited about the prospect of a public opening.

While the Barnum still owns the box, Saint-Pierre said she wanted the Peabody to host the box opening because of the availability of experts on Samurai and Japanese history.

Heiser, who also emceed the event on Saturday, noted that it is rare to have an artifact with absolutely no documentation attached to it. But Heiser did add that the typical museum — including the Peabody, which has over 12 million specimens in its collection — contains a multitude of artifacts the current staff has not laid eyes on yet.

“There’s just too much. There are worlds of discovery waiting in our own collections,” Heiser said.

People drawn by the mystery of the box packed into the Great Hall of Dinosaurs on the first floor of the Peabody. The Peabody staff installed a GoPro camera above the box in order to stream live video footage to a screen at the back wall of the hall so that everyone could see the opening.

Pat McCormick, senior executive assistant to the vice president of finance and business operations and a regular visitor of the Peabody, said she had never seen anything quite like this.

“It was very exciting,” she said. “The contents are so very special. [It was] just beautiful.”

The Connecticut Humanities Fund provided a grant which funded both this event and the production of a video by Firelight Media Group LLC about the Samurai box.

Correction, Tues, Nov. 10: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Roger Colten and incorrectly described his job title.