The Peabody Museum of Natural History’s Great Hall — home to the Peabody’s largest mounted skeleton, a brontosaurus — played host on Wednesday evening to more than its usual crowd of dinosaurs. The museum, currently celebrating its 150th anniversary year, opened the commemorative exhibit, “Treasures of the Peabody: 150 Years of Exploration and Discovery,” with a well-attended event featuring food, drinks and music.
The jazz, played in front of a backdrop of triceratops skulls, began at 5:30 p.m. when dozens of invited guests were already milling through the first-floor exhibit halls. More than 150 attended the event, which lasted through much of the evening. In his opening remarks, Peabody Director David Skelly said the exhibit aimed to tell the story of the museum and its place in Yale history. Skelly’s predecessor, former director Derek Briggs, said they chose displays they thought would resonate with the public.
“Objects in this room helped crack some of the biggest problems in science that humanity faced, for example articulating a theory of where biodiversity came from and how it is maintained, that is, evolution,” said Thomas Near, Saybrook College master and associate curator of vertebrate zoology at the Peabody. “On one hand, it is, I think, a wonderful overview of the history of science and cultural anthropology here at Yale, but on the other hand it’s also a celebration of the contribution that those objects and studying those objects have contributed to science globally.”
The exhibit features a timeline of the Peabody, beginning with the founding of Yale in 1701 and ending with recognition of the museum’s place as a world leader from the 1960s to the present. Among the artifacts displayed through the timeline is the Culpeper/Loff Double Microscope. The College purchased this, Yale’s first microscope, in 1735, seven decades before a professor of science arrived at the school.
Farther into the exhibit hall, some of the greatest treasures of the Peabody’s 13 million-piece collection are on display — normally, only 0.04 percent of specimens in collection can be shown at one time. The selection process lasted about a year, with curators seeking submissions from collection managers of each of the Peabody’s 10 departments.
Near explained that the exhibit linked past scientific discovery with modern research.
“I think that there are very important contemporary issues that we’re able to deal with in the context of our objects,” Near said. “For example, we have [an] ivory-billed woodpecker, which is presumed extinct, and a frog specimen that represents a type specimen of a new species of frog, discovered in Staten Island, New York. In that sense, biodiversity conservation is here, and also biodiversity discovery, even in our own backyard, is still an ongoing process.”
Near said it was difficult to encapsulate the entirety of the museum’s 150-year history, given the size of the museum’s collection and the significance so many of its pieces bear to the scientific record. Nevertheless, the Peabody curators succeeded in creating an exhibit that unified artifacts from across the departments and the museum’s archives in both an aesthetic and informative manner, he said.
Geology and geophysics professor Bhart-Anjan Bhullar ’05 described the Peabody’s vertebrate paleontologists as the modern-world successors of O. C. Marsh, who graduated from Yale College in 1860. Marsh, who contributed extensively to the museum’s collection, was a paleontologist and the nephew of the Peabody’s founder.
“We still go out there. We dig up fossils,” Bhullar said. “But in the lab, during the year, we’re doing advanced 3-D processing of CT-scanned data to pull things from the fossils that no one was able to do before.”
While much of his work is driven by technology, Bhullar said he remains committed to the principle of tactile display as a medium for museum exhibition and the centrality of physical objects to the historical record.
Bhullar noted that imaging technologies and 3-D printing could allow for new modes of physical displays that could translate research at the genetic level to large-sale, three-dimensional, visual displays, but he acknowledged that scientific discovery could not revolve solely around the microscopic.
“The fossils are the things that record the actual story of life on earth. You’ll never get that from genes, you’ll never get that from the lab, you have to explore, you have to find new sites, you have to find new fossils. They’ll tell you surprising things that you would never have predicted.”
Skelly chose to view the exhibit not just as a celebration of the museum’s past, but also wanted to look forward to the Peabody’s next 150 years of impact on science education.
“I think [the Peabody] will be doing what it was doing 150 years ago and what it’s doing now, supporting the research and teaching initiative at the University,” Skelly said. “Getting people into museums is going to get harder and harder … but what this shows, I think is that people want to see the real thing, so I hope they’ll keep coming.”