At West Campus, new and improved access to Peabody Museum’s collections

Several ceramic pots on shelves.
These intact ceramic pots are archeological artifacts of indigenous peoples from the Southwest and modern-day Arkansas. Each is nestled in customized housing. (All photos by Dan Renzetti)

The Peabody Museum’s revamped collections facility on Yale’s West Campus is a browser’s paradise.

Its rows of compact shelving house the museum’s anthropology and history of science and technology collections, more than 1.5 million items in all. Turn a crank, open a lane in the 9-foot shelves, and encounter a 23-foot outrigger canoe from Micronesia, a portrait of a 19th-century Haitian general, ancient Mesoamerican ceramic pots, handwoven fans from Samoa and a lot more.

Every shelf and cabinet in the renovated 20,000 square-foot storage and research space offers a story of human endeavor — across time, geography, and cultures — and the contents will soon be available for convenient study.

We designed this space to promote browsing,” said Tim White, the Peabody’s director of collections and research, whose team is preparing to welcome scholars in the fall. “Whether it’s an undergraduate working on a class project, a grad student prepping for fieldwork, or a researcher from Yale or elsewhere on the hunt for something, we want them here exploring.”

Previously, the space housed just a portion of the Peabody’s anthropology collection. The rest was spread across five rooms in two other buildings in New Haven: the museum proper and the neighboring Kline Geology Laboratory. Those spaces included cramped corners and crowded alcoves ill-suited for storing and studying archaeological and ethnographic materials.

A woman rolls a textile onto a cylinder for storage.
Lea Sellon, a museum assistant at the Peabody, rolls a textile onto a cylinder for storage.

Over three years, museum staff has packed, cataloged, and moved hundreds of thousands of objects to the newly renovated West Campus facility, which will permanently house the majority of the Peabody’s anthropology collection, more than 1.5 million objects, in a single, climate-controlled space alongside the history of science and technology collection, which comprises about 15,000 objects, including Yale College’s first microscope — purchased in 1734.

Currently, the space is about 85% full, with more objects arriving each week.

The project is part of a major renovation of the Peabody Museum, now under way and made possible through donor support, including a $160 million gift from Edward P. Bass ’67 in 2018, that will increase the museum’s exhibit footprint by 50% and create new spaces for research and teaching with its collections. The refurbished West Campus facility underscores the effort to open the museum’s vast collections to research and teaching.

The objects are happier here and researchers will be happier, too,” said Maureen DaRos White, a museum assistant at the Peabody assigned to the West Campus space. “They often have limited time, so having everything in one facility removes the delay of hopping from room to room or building to building.”

A long hallway lined with storage cabinets.
The 20,000-square-foot facility was completely renovated. The island running parallel to the compact storage units provides workspace for museum staff and researchers.

The West Campus facility features a 1,700-square-foot workspace for students and researchers. Workstations dot the storage area, allowing scholars to examine materials close to where they are shelved and enabling staff to locate additional objects quickly upon request.

The space is located in West Campus’ Collection Study Center, along with Yale’s Institute for the Preservation and Cultural Heritage, a research collaborative dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of material culture. The building also houses the Yale University Art Gallery’s Wurtele Study Center, an open-access storage facility for the museum’s three-dimensional art objects, and its Leslie P. and George H. Hume American Furniture Study Center, which houses the gallery’s collection of American furniture. Having all of the anthropological and history of science and technology collections under one roof will facilitate collaboration with other museums and cultural institutions, White said.

The West Campus facility received a complete makeover: new roof and concrete-hard epoxy floors, upgraded HVAC equipment, and a wide array of specialty shelving and cabinetry — archaeological and ethnographic objects don’t come in uniform sizes.

A full-size replica of a basalt sculpture of a colossal head.
This full-size replica of a basalt sculpture of colossal head excavated in the ancient Olmec San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán in Mexico is too massive to fit in a cabinet, so it’s kept in a section of open space with other unwieldy objects.

In all, the space boasts 17 varieties of storage, including bookshelves, rollers for textiles, and racks for oversize items that bring to mind an aisle in an outdoor-sporting goods store. That’s where the 23-foot Micronesian outrigger canoe, which has a mahogany hull and arrived in the United States in 1945, is secured with other long vessels, including a kayak from the Aleutian Islands that dates to 1889. Previously, the boats were stored in the rafters of KGL 27, a sub-basement that was packed floor to ceiling with objects from the South Pacific, where they were virtually inaccessible.

The bookshelves hold 17,000 archival records from Peabody-affiliated researchers, among them fieldnotes, photographs, and (yes) books. For example, it features a library of books and publications about the Caribbean that belonged to the late Benjamin Irving Rouse, a Yale archaeologist who made major contributions to the study of the region’s cultures.

For the first time, the archival material is stored in the same space as the archaeological and ethnographic objects they describe — another boon to researchers and students.

Scholars can access original research and documentation in these records that are related to the objects they’re studying,” said Brooke Mealey, a museum assistant who has helped organize the collection materials.

A woman in a museum storage room.
Brooke Mealey, a museum assistant, has worked with colleagues to organize hundreds of thousands of objects from 19 storage rooms into the refurbished West Campus space.

A long central island running between banks of shelving in the largest room provides additional storage and flat surface for processing and studying objects.

Despite the storage space’s versatility, some objects simply cannot fit on shelves or in cabinets. An open area is home to an eclectic mix of irregularly shaped items, including a full-size fiberglass replica of a colossal basalt sculpture of a human head excavated in the ancient Olmec city of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán in Mexico. The late Yale archaeologist Michael D. Coe made groundbreaking discoveries at that site that allowed him to trace the roots of the Olmec civilization back 3,000 years. (The original monument weighs eight to 10 tons.)

The colossal noggin’s neighbors include an Egyptian lintel, elaborate regalia from New Guinea, towering antelope sculptures from Mali, and a sculpture of a fierce-looking dragon from Bali.

While the Bali dragon defies containers, rows of small ceramic jars are nestled in a drawer in the compact shelving — each braced in housing made of foam coils. The ceramic artifacts, which come from a site in Panama, were previously stored in wooden drawers in PM7A, a long and narrow room in the Peabody’s basement that housed North American archaeological artifacts.

Polynesian fans in storage draws.
In their previous accommodations, these wicker Polynesian fans were stacked on top of each other in a cramped nook above the museum’s security desk.

A cabinet in the center island a few steps from the jars contains a suit of Samurai armor from the museum’s Japanese collections. A box on the countertop above the armor contained an assortment of clay sherds from Syria that were awaiting their new home in the drawers alongside the Panamanian ceramic jars.

While Syrian sherds possess research value, they don’t quite command attention like the rows of whole ceramic vessels lining nearby shelves. The various pots and vases are a blend of modern, ethnographical pieces and archaeological artifacts. They have similar storage needs, so it makes sense to store them together, Mealey explained.

The cabinets housing basketry highlight the upgrade in accommodations. Mealey opened a flat drawer in which wicker fans from Samoa are neatly arranged beside each other. Before arriving on West Campus, the fans were stacked like pancakes in a small space above the security desk in the museum, she said. To enter the cramped room, it was necessary to stoop.

Again,” said Mealey, “both objects and people will be more comfortable here.”

Opening up a lane in another bank of compact shelving reveals the dignified visages of 19th-century Haitian political and military leaders decked out in epaulets, gold buttons, and medals as rendered in 15 portraits by the artist Louis Rigaud. Other artwork includes paintings by indigenous Australians and contemporary Surinamese artist Marcel Pinas, a member of a Maroon community — descendants of formerly enslaved people who escaped bondage and established communities in the Caribbean and throughout the Americas, often mingling with neighboring indigenous populations.

Paintings of Haitian military and political leaders.
Portraits of 19th-century Haitian military and political leaders attributed to the artist Louis Rigaud are among a collection of artworks housed in the state-of-the-art facility.

A special area in the facility houses sacred or ceremonial Native American objects. The museum restricts access to those materials in accordance with any rules by the communities of origin governing how, when, and by whom they can be viewed or handled.

Objects from indigenous peoples are organized by cultural group and function rather than by the individual who collected them, which is a standard method for cataloging archaeological or ethnographic materials, said Jessie Cohen, the Peabody’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act coordinator.

Cohen opened a drawer containing moccasins, beaded shirts, and elk-teeth necklaces from Plains tribes, such as the Apache and Lakota.

We’re not whitewashing the collections by arranging them simply based on which individual collected them,” she said. “Instead, we’re trying to organize them based on function and context and on information we get from tribes through consultations, which the improved access from this great new space facilitates.”

The renovation of the Peabody’s main building is under way. The museum is expected to reopen in three years.

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324