Yale Peabody Museum marks 150 years of scientific discovery

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History is marking its 150th anniversary with an exhibition that utilizes “treasures” from the museum’s collections to weave a story of innovation and scientific revelation spanning from the Peabody’s founding in 1866 through to the present day.

The exhibit, “Treasures of the Peabody: 150 Years of Exploration & Discovery,features 150 artifacts and specimens from the museum’s collections alongside stories about the scientists and researchers who have shaped people’s understanding of life on Earth.

Peabody Director David Skelly, the Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology, said the exhibit seeks to show the critical role the museum has played in integrating science into the fiber of Yale.

“This museum is widely known as an exhibit museum … But the reality is that the museum was created by people very much focused on research and teaching.”

— David Skelly, director of the Yale Peabody Museum

“This museum is widely known as an exhibit museum — that’s certainly what I experienced coming here as a kid,” Skelly said. “But the reality is that the museum was created by people very much focused on research and teaching. The public component of the museum provides a window into our research mission.

Skelly curated the exhibition with Thomas J. Near, curator of the Peabody’s Bingham Oceanographic Collection and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale.

Financier and philanthropist George Peabody donated $150,000 in 1866 for the establishment of a natural history museum at Yale. He did so at the behest of his nephew, Othniel Charles “O.C.” Marsh, 1860 B.A., an 1862 graduate of Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School and a professor of paleontology.

The museum’s original building opened on the corner of Elm and High streets in 1876. It was demolished in 1917 to create space for new dormitories. The current building opened to the public in 1926. Its collections contain more than 13 million objects, only about 5,000 of which are on permanent display in the museum’s galleries.

“Treasures of the Peabody” is arranged into seven sections, each focusing on a different aspect of the museum’s history. The opening section offers an overview of the introduction of the sciences to Yale. It features the first microscope acquired by Yale College, which purchased it in 1735 — 70 years before the school hired Benjamin Silliman, its first science professor.

“The best evidence”

“Evolving Science,” a section at the back of the gallery, forms the exhibition’s backbone. It explores the museum’s role in establishing a connection between birds and dinosaurs, starting with Marsh’s discovery of two ancient bird species in the 1870s that had sharp, pointed teeth — a feature typical of reptiles.

“Birds don’t have teeth,” said Skelly. “You’ve heard the expression ‘as rare as hens’ teeth.’ These fossils provide what is very clearly a missing link between birds and dinosaurs.”

Marsh produced a volume describing every detail of the birds’ anatomy. In 1880, upon receiving a complimentary copy of the volume from the author, Charles Darwin wrote to Marsh that the toothed birds, among other discoveries by Marsh, provided “the best evidence” to support the theory of evolution by natural selection in the 20 years since he published “Origin of Species.” A facsimile of this letter is on display. 

The connection between birds and dinosaurs fell out of favor in the first half of the 20th century. It was revived in the early 1970s, a few years after John Ostrom, a Yale paleontologist, discovered the fossilized remains of a small raptor with vicious-looking, sickle-shaped claws on the second toes of its hind feet. Other anatomical features, such as a rigid tail that provided balance, suggested the raptor was an aggressive, possibly warm-blooded predator with a high rate of metabolism, casting into doubt the traditional view of dinosaurs as plodding, cold-blooded reptiles

Deinonychus, as Ostrom named his discovery, shared many anatomical similarities with the oldest known bird, Archaeopteryx, indicating that at least some species of dinosaurs were much more like birds than lizards — a theory that is widely accepted today. Ostrom’s influence expanded beyond the scientific world into popular culture as Deinonychus was the inspiration for the Velociraptors in Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” and Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of the novel. (A full-scale model of the Velociraptor from the film franchise is on display in front of the museum’s gift shop, on loan from Universal Studios.)

The section concludes with more recent research that has identified the colors of some of the feathered dinosaurs as well as current research into the evolutionary development of birds from dinosaurs by manipulating the genetic makeup of embryos to produce chickens with more of a reptilian snout than a bird beak.

“This section tells a great story starting in the 1870s and through 2016 about how the museum’s collections have contributed to a single scientific narrative,” said Richard Kissel, the Peabody’s director of public programs. “We’ve gone from a complete question mark to a very solid understanding to now focusing on the details to tell that story.”

Discovering and conserving nature

The exhibit’s second section, “Discovering Nature,” presents specimens and artifacts that document the discovery of nature, including several examples of “type” specimens — the first of its kind upon which a species is based. It features a vertebra from Apatosaurus ajax, which is among the 35 dinosaur genera (and over 75 dinosaur species) that Marsh named during his career, including BrontosaurusStegosaurus, and Triceratops. Other type specimens displayed include a species of leopard frog discovered on Staten Island and named in 2014.

Also displayed are significant scientific instruments, including one of the “saliometers” that Ivan Pavlov used to measure the amount of drool produced by his dogs. An 1896 X-ray of a human skull is one of the earliest surviving examples in the United States.

“From the Ends of the Earth” focuses on several key scientific expeditions that expanded the Peabody’s collections and forged discoveries. It begins with artifacts and specimens from the U.S. Exploring Expedition of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding lands from 1838 to 1842. Yale’s James Dwight Dana was a geologist on the expedition. Materials related to O.C. Marsh’s famous fossil-hunting expeditions in the American West from 1870 to 1873 are displayed. It features a rifle that belonged to William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, who escorted the first expedition for one day and remained lifelong friends with Marsh.     

“Conserving Nature” highlights the work of George Bird Grinnell 1870 B.A., 1880 Ph.D., one of Marsh’s students and an early conservationist. He founded Audubon Society of New York, the precursor to the National Audubon Society. Grinnell’s advocacy drove the passage of the Lacey Act, a federal law passed in 1900 that bans trafficking in protected wildlife.

The first microscope acquired by Yale College, purchased in 1735.

“One in a Million” showcases individual objects from across the collections. Items on display include a tooth of T. rex collected in 1874, the first recorded specimen of the fearsome predator; the skeleton of the famed circus gorilla Gargantua the Great; a liverwort specimen Darwin collected during his voyage on the HMS Beagle; and the shell of 500-pound giant clam.

The final section, “A Changing Earth,” explores how the museum’s collections assist people’s understanding about the changing planet. It includes a 50 million-year old fossilized palm frond that was collected in Wyoming, showing that a state famous for its ski resorts once had a tropical climate.  A specimen of a three-legged frog provides an example of the toll that development of landscapes can exact on animal species.

Skelly said the Peabody’s collections help to demonstrate the environmental impact of rising carbon dioxide emissions and global warming.

“For example, by comparing observations today with historical data from our botany collections, researchers have learned that many deciduous trees in new England are leafing out earlier than they did 100 years ago,” he said.

“Incredible stories” 

The exhibition’s opening coincides with the release of “House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth,” a book by science writer Richard Conniff  ’73 B.A., that provides a detailed biography of the Peabody Museum.  

“When I started working on this book, I just found incredible stories — one after the other — of the people who have worked here,” Conniff said. “They are exciting stories. They were doing dangerous things in faraway places, but also they were making major changes to our sense of the world.”

Conniff’s book complements “Exploration and Discovery: Treasures of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History,” the exhibition’s catalog co-authored by Skelly and Near, with photographs by Robert Lorenz. 

“Treasures of the Peabody” runs through Jan. 8. The museum will host a series of programming throughout the year to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Details and a calendar of events are available on the Peabody’s website.

Media Contact

Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548