In August, Edward P. Bass ’67 donated $160 million to Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. His gift — one of the largest in Yale’s history and the single largest donation to a U.S. natural history museum to date —will allow the museum to expand its classroom, exhibition, research and collection storage spaces.

The Peabody has now sought input from Yale students and various faculty members to determine the best ways to improve the museum with the historic donation.

“What we are trying to do with the renovation is place these collections — these objects, the specimens — and the expertise that is represented by the museum’s staff, the curators, in the hands of Yale faculty and students from all across the university,” director of the Peabody David Skelly said.

Only 0.0004 percent of the museum’s expansive 13-million-piece collection is currently shown to the public, according to Skelly. But additional exhibition space, to be built as part of the new renovation, will allow for more of the collection to go on display. The expanded galleries will also feature student-curated exhibitions.

The Peabody is also interested in revamping how visitors interact with its exhibits. Undergraduate students taking the project-based course “Making Spaces” have already begun generating potential ideas for new ways that visitors can experience the renovated galleries.

“The students are working very closely with Peabody affiliates and representatives to think about that reimagined Peabody — what is the future of the natural history museum?” said Joseph Zinter, a lecturer within the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences who teaches the seminar.

And though Zinter’s students are still ironing out their designs, Skelly said that they have already had fantastic insights. In past iterations of the course, students created interactive devices that could give visitors personalized tours of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building.

The Peabody’s public galleries will close in 2020 for the renovation. Many of the museum’s daily activities, like research and supporting undergraduate education, will continue while the galleries are under construction.

Community engagement and established programs hosted by the Peabody, like their after-school enrichment program, will also still be offered by the museum. The Peabody also plans to open the disassembly of its towering Brontosaurus skeleton — the first one ever discovered — to the public.

Bass’ donation will also allow the museum to add five classrooms designed for faculty use throughout the gallery. Lacking significant classroom space in the current building, professors have had difficulties reliably incorporating the Peabody’s collections into their lesson plans. These new classrooms will be modeled in a way similar to those found in the Beinecke Library or Yale University Art Gallery.

“The museum has not been a place where every single Yale College student comes, and it needs to be,” Skelly said.

This semester, Skelly is teaching a first-year seminar called “Collections of the Peabody Museum,” which, he said, exemplifies the Peabody’s vision to engage more students in research using the museum’s collections following the renovations.

“When people think about museums, especially natural history museums, they don’t realize that the main purpose of these places is research — people just think it’s for entertainment or just for education — but it’s a dedicated space to house these millions of items and all these departments for the sole purpose of people coming and studying and researching them,” said Danielle de Haerne ’22, one of Skelly’s students.

For her research project in the class, Naomi Shimberg ’22 is using the Peabody collections to study herbivory, or plant-eating. She said that the class was able to choose from a slew of academic subjects for their projects, ranging from paleontology to the history of the Peabody itself.

The Peabody was founded over 150 years ago when Yale sought to bolster its profile in the sciences during a rush of archaeological discoveries in the late 1800s.

“Back in the 19th century, a museum was kind of like today’s tech startups, it was a way you really innovated in the sciences,” Skelly explained.

Fields like molecular biology and physics, which require their own dedicated facilities, expanded during the 20th century. During this time, research within museums fell out of the public’s curiosity, but that trend has since reversed.

“In recent decades, what we have discovered is that what we can understand from objects — from materials, from specimens — has just exploded,” he said. “So the collections in the museum have become this irreplaceable resource that can be put toward uses that the folks who collected these objects may never have possibly imagined.”

More than 150,000 people visit the Peabody each year.

Marisa Peryer  |