Over 100 people crowded the Great Hall of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History on Thursday evening in an event celebrating the museum’s 150th anniversary year.
The event’s main attraction was a talk by Richard Conniff ’73, a noted nonfiction science author and columnist for The New York Times, whose Yale-commissioned book titled “House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth” was released this month. In conjunction with the book’s release, the Peabody has also launched “Treasures of the Peabody: 150 Years of Exploration and Discovery,” a special exhibit -displaying some of the museums best-known artifacts.
“The Peabody was put together not as an exhibit museum first,” museum director David Skelly said at the exhibit’s private opening on March 30. “This is a research museum. This place is what it is because it has been driven by research and a teaching mission, the core missions of this University.”
Skelly described the new celebratory hall as an “all hands on deck effort” by the Peabody staff to tell the museum’s story, and highlighted the difference in breadth between most exhibits and “Treasures of the Peabody.”
While exhibits generally involve a small team of designers and curators and only a few museum divisions in their creation, all 10 departments of the Peabody as well as the museum’s archives are represented in the special showing, Skelly said at the opening.
Similar to the exhibit, “House of Lost Worlds” is a wide-reaching work. Describing the museum’s history and its greatest contributions to science, including O. C. Marsh’s fossils and the characterization of the giant squid, the book also chronicles the museum’s lesser-known stories.
When Yale first approached Conniff in 2013 to tell the story of its research museum, Conniff knew little about the Peabody. Although he had been a Yale College undergraduate, by his own admission, Conniff rarely made the climb up Science Hill. Moreover, Conniff said he was unsure that the Peabody had a whole book’s worth of stories in it. As a test, Conniff wrote a profile of paleontologist and Yale professor John Ostrom, who eventually provided an endpoint for “House of Lost Worlds.”
“When I was working on the book, I just discovered one great story after another,” Conniff said. “They were stories that weren’t just about adventure for its own sake; they were stories that led to discoveries that changed the world.”
Conniff told Thursday’s audience stories of the museum’s paleontologists, including that of James Dwight Dana, an 1833 Yale College graduate responsible for much of the early knowledge of Hawaii’s volcanoes.
Attendees were largely impressed with the museum’s rich history and Conniff’s remarks.
Amber Polk, a 17-year-old from Milford, Connecticut, with an interest in paleontology, made an infrequent trip to the Peabody to hear Conniff speak. Rachel Dunkley, another Milford resident, said she was struck by the mark the Peabody has made on history and science.
The Peabody Museum holds 13 million specimens, only 0.04 percent of which can be displayed at any one time.