Adam McPhail, Contributing Photographer

After the Peabody Museum reopened last Tuesday following four years of renovation, members of the Yale and New Haven communities have flocked to see the expanded gallery space, new displays and reimagined exhibits.

But while exploring the renovated Peabody, visitors may have missed the cadre of museum staff standing around the edges of exhibits and on the second-floor walkway overlooking Burke Hall. These staff members spent years building the Peabody back from bare walls in 2020. The museum had been stripped of all but three displays that remained only because they were too large to move.

When the museum opened, staff members like museum director David Skelly watched with excitement as visitors interacted with exhibits that they had spent years redeveloping.

“I’m so excited to see all of these people who work so hard in the galleries, watching crowds of people come in and enjoy all of this work,” Skelly told the News. “Personally, selfishly, like walking in and seeing the Brontosaurus remounted, there’s a little five-year-old part of me that couldn’t be any more just completely excited about all this.”

The renovation has added museum gallery space and additional exhibition space to display artifacts, fossils and meteorites. The renovated space also includes new research facilities, classrooms and an educational center for K-12 students in the New Haven area.

A theme of the renovation was bringing the exhibits to life, said Vanessa Rhue, the museum’s collection manager of vertebrate paleontology. Fossils from the archosaur, a predecessor to crocodiles, are exhibited in a running pose with its arms behind its body. The long-necked brontosaurus in the museum’s Burke Hall of Dinosaurs now has a cocked and turned head, peering at visitors with a “bird-like” tilt, said Rhue. 

Marilyn Fox, the chief preparator of the museum’s vertebrate paleontology division, said that these modifications comprise an effort to align the displays with newer research in the field of paleontology. Before the renovations, for instance, the brontosaurus bones had been displayed in the same static pose since the Peabody first opened, reflecting the previous paleontological belief that the dinosaur lived “[sitting] in the water all day,” Fox said.

The new brontosaurus exhibit changes reflect the understanding that the creature was likely much livelier and had a lifestyle more similar to a modern-day elephant.

“I grew up in Connecticut, I’ve been going to this museum since I was about five,” Skelly told the News. “And there were exhibits that we just took down that had not changed one bit since I was a kid. That’s a comforting nostalgia thing for me, but that’s nowhere a modern museum can be. We need to be giving people access to stories that reflect current understanding.”

To accomplish this, Fox said, workers cleared out the Peabody in 2020 by dismantling displays and ensuring the fossils’ safe removal and storage, leaving only three displays on the site. Many of the materials were transported to an off-site facility at Yale’s West Campus for restoration and storage. 

Some specimens required specialized treatments that were beyond the scope of the Peabody staff. Their restoration was outsourced to contractors — including the company Research Casting International based in Trenton, Ontario. 

Once the fossils arrive at West Campus or in Trenton, preparators are tasked with removing the grime and dust from the fossils. Specialists use solvents such as alcohol, ethanol and acetone to clean the bones. Then, they use brushes called air scribes to remove plaster that may have previously covered the bones.

After the bones are cleaned by the preparators, they are handed off to the blacksmiths, who prop the fossils up in a sandbox. The blacksmiths take the clean bones and design removable armatures — metal frameworks that hold the bones in place — that fit each bone on a mount. Once the armatures are complete, they build a steel support system and weld the armatures together to set up a fossil exhibit in a desired pose. 

Often, Rhue told the News, scientists don’t have access to complete skeletons: bones can decay over millions of years, for instance, or predators can pick them apart. To work around this, Peabody staff can make plaster approximations of what the structure may have looked like. 

According to Rhue, to revamp these plaster approximations, researchers from around the world visit the Peabody’s specimens and determine whether the existing plaster sculpture is similar to what the latest research indicates. 

They also compare the missing fossils with complementary bones in similar animals, Rhue said, which gives scientists a better idea of what a given structure may have looked like.

“These are much more interesting,” Fox told the News. “It brings the animal to life.”

Making decisions about how to re-display the fossils, Rhue added, was a team effort.

Throughout the renovation, outside collaborators, postdoctoral associates and graduate students added their input on restoration decisions on a Google Slides file. By the end, the slideshow had over 653 slides, covered with notes and comments from experts.

The Peabody’s staff used this document to capture conversations from Zoom meetings, display photographs indicating the progress of the restorations and receive comments from paleontologists within and beyond Yale to inform the design decisions, Rhue said.

By the end, the Peabody re-displayed nearly 250 curated specimens in thematic sections, with each designed around a specific scientific concept or a period from fossil history. According to Rhue, curators gave considerable attention to the positioning, completeness and support of each specimen to represent each museum exhibit as a storyline.

According to Skelly, those updates have allowed the Peabody to catch up to new developments in the field of paleontology. The process required extensive collaboration among various stakeholders, including curators, preparers, assistants, managers, registrars, conservators, interns, contractors and designers, Rhue added. 

“We’re all responsible for making decisions and trying to have as much information as possible for the future generations to use and enjoy,” Rhue told the News. “That’s really the exciting part of my job — being able to make that contribution in the best way that we can.”

The Peabody Museum is located at 170 Whitney Ave.

Carlos Salcerio covers the Yale School of Medicine and the Yale School of Nursing for the SciTech desk. Originally from Cuba, he is a prospective pre-medical student majoring in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry in Jonathan Edwards College.