‘A place for me’: New voices help the Peabody tell a more inclusive story

The Peabody Museum tropical rainforest diorama.
The Peabody Museum tapped veterans of its Sci.CORPS program to make its beloved wildlife dioramas, including this scene from a tropical rainforest, more engaging to a larger audience.

Natasha Ghazali had a high school gig as a museum interpreter at Yale’s Peabody Museum, helping visitors of all ages and walks of life learn more about the objects and specimens on display. Over many hours in the galleries, she observed people’s reactions: what grabbed their attention, what inspired their questions, what they ignored.

Ghazali, presently a senior at Yale College, was a member of the Peabody’s Sci.CORPS program, which provides students from New Haven and West Haven high schools professional experience in a museum setting.

This year, she has put that experience to use. At the museum’s invitation, she’s teamed up with fellow Sci.CORPS veterans Joseph Jackson and Paula Mock to rethink and rewrite the labeling for the museum’s famed dioramas, the exquisitely crafted three-dimensional tableaus in which taxidermy mounts of grizzlies, buffaloes, rams, and other animals roam prairies, jungles, tundra, and mountain passes. Their charge was to adopt a new approach to museum storytelling, using language and methods that will appeal to visitors of different ages and backgrounds.

Neeti Jain and Natasha Ghazali
Neeti Jain and Natasha Ghazali, team members on the project.

One of our goals was to figure out how to meet people where they are, so that they can learn things that they want to know, rather than things the museum was telling them they should know,” Ghazali said.

The project is part of a wider effort to make the Peabody more welcoming and accessible to all visitors and to empower voices traditionally excluded from museum settings. With the Peabody closed to the public until 2024 for an extensive renovation, its staff has a unique opportunity to reconsider the kinds of stories the museum’s exhibits tell and how they’re told, said Christopher Norris, director of public programming.

The Peabody has an A-plus team of curators, and their expertise will always form the core of our exhibits,” Norris said. “But we’ve started a conversation during the renovation about how to share new stories in our galleries and include new voices. We believe a more inclusive and accessible approach to storytelling will create a more satisfying, enriching, and well-rounded experience for all of our visitors once the museum reopens.”

Aside from rethinking storytelling in the galleries, the multi-faceted initiative also includes performing an in-depth evaluation of the museum’s current practices, forging stronger ties with the local community, and reconsidering how the Peabody’s approaches the history and culture of Indigenous peoples. A recent Connecticut Humanities grant supported work on new storytelling and community engagement in the museum’s five galleries that concern human culture, including human impacts on the natural world, the history of science and technology in the modern age, ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and Indigenous peoples in North and South America.

Kailen Rogers, associate director of exhibitions, is guiding the initiatives with key support from Neeti Jain, a National Science Foundation fellow who is overseeing the evaluation and the makeover of the diorama labels.

Our hope is that when we reopen, more visitors will say, ‘This is a place for me,’” Rogers said. “We want people to feel that they are relevant to the museum and that the museum is relevant to them.”

The howls of monkeys’

Before the renovation, the diorama hall’s labels were content rich and well-suited to visitors with the time and inclination to read them, Jain said. But not every visitor wants to read a text-heavy label, she said.

Maybe they want an experience that’s more contemplative or fun,” she said. “Parents of young children don’t have the time to do much reading in the galleries. We want to provide visitors multiple points of entry into the dioramas that meet their varied levels of interest.”

The Sci.CORPS alums replaced the hall’s original labels with succinct “sensory” labels that evoke the sights, sounds, and feel of the landscapes behind the glass. For example, Mock used an economy of words to introduce visitors to the tropical rainforest diorama and pull them into the scene:

The howls of monkeys echo through the jungle as jaguars prowl for prey. Woodpeckers make their homes high in the trees rhythmically clicking. Coaties scavenge through the dense forest floor.

It’s a different approach,” Ghazali said. “The labels aren’t intended to be comprehensive. They never can be, so trying to make them exhaustive just creates a lot of text that can make them inaccessible to visitors. We’re offering more digestible bites that are fun and hopefully leave people excited to visit again.”

Cards located beside the dioramas will provide additional information. One side will include a map showing where a given landscape is located along with a series of guiding questions intended to help visitors ponder what they see behind the glass. Some will feature excerpts of poems by Indigenous peoples, pending permission from the authors. The reverse side will feature a “Can you spot me?” game that highlights five plants and animals in each diorama.

We had noticed that parents often make a game of the dioramas, asking their children if they can spot an animal or plant,” Ghazali said. “We turned that observation into a game as a way to provide additional information about the plant and animal species being depicted.”

Some of the game’s answers have a funny, tongue-in-cheek quality intended to appeal to adults.

It’s the Pixar effect,” Jain said, referencing the popular animated movies that are seeded with jokes that might soar over kids heads but make their parents chuckle.

Knowing from experience that visitors often ask about the origins of the taxidermy specimens, the Sci.CORPS veterans conducted research to create a wall panel in the gallery answering behind the scenes question about how the dioramas were produced.

A long journey’

In reimagining the human culture galleries, the Peabody’s curators are making a point of considering the perspectives of people from the regions where the objects displayed originated.

For example, the curators of the Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt gallery consulted Iraqi and Syrian people to confirm the appropriateness of the term “Mesopotamia,” a historical region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that includes parts of modern-day Syria and Iraq.

Finding the right language can be challenging,” said Agnete Lassen, associate curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection. “Terms like ‘the Middle East’ and ‘Near East’ are Eurocentric. They denote the region’s position relative to the West. What do people think about when they hear ‘Middle East?’ Do they connect it to ancient Mesopotamia, cuneiform writing, and the Assyrians? We don’t want to make anybody feel disconnected because of the geographical terms we use, but we also don’t want to confuse people.”

Lassen and her colleagues are reaching out to community organizations that have ties to the heritage and geographic areas represented in the galleries. For instance, the Peabody has formed a partnership with Sanctuary Kitchen, a local organization that promotes the culinary traditions, cultures, and stories of refugees and immigrants resettled in the area, to do writing workshops with chefs from Iraq and Syria. The idea is to support and work with individuals who want to share their stories and incorporate that storytelling into exhibits on ancient Mesopotamia, particularly those concerning food.

Sanctuary Kitchen staff.
The Peabody is partnering with chefs from Sanctuary Kitchen, a local non-profit that promotes the culinary traditions and stories of refugees and immigrants resettled in the New Haven area, with the goal of including their stories in the museum’s human culture galleries. Photo courtesy of Sanctuary Kitchen.

How do you make a museum where people from all walks of life feel welcome? This work gets at that question by pairing artifacts with the stories of people living right here in the community,” said Quynh Tran, program director at Sanctuary Kitchen. “That’s not something you necessarily expect to encounter when you visit a museum, but it will help make the Peabody accessible to the entire community. And our chefs gain something valuable from helping the museum.”

Eventually, the Peabody would like to co-curate displays with community members and have 5 to 10% of the information labels in the human culture galleries authored by people from outside the museum, Rogers said.

The museum is working with Nixon & Co., a consulting group focused on building mutually beneficial relationships between museums and the communities that surround them.

When you do this work the right way, it’s focused on creating an equitable space that makes community members feel valued for what they bring to the museum, not for showing up and participating in the something the museum has predetermined will be valuable for them,” said Kellen Nixon, principal of the Charlotte-based consultancy. “It’s about celebrating the unique gifts, knowledge, and skills that people from the community can bring into the institution.”

Building that equitable space is hard work, Lassen said.

This has been a long journey, and I feel a lot more knowledgeable about what means to engage the community successfully,” she said. “You can’t expect people to do our curation for us. It requires a different kind of conversation in which we are helping one another.”

Another way to make the Mesopotamia and Egypt gallery inviting to diverse audiences, Lassen said, is by presenting objects that appeal to universal human themes, such as food, love, and sorrow.

Objects from the Babylonian Collection.
The Yale Babylonian Collection includes the oldest known cookbooks, which contain recipes more than 4,000 years old. Photo credit: Klaus Wagensonner.

Yale’s Babylonian Collection, a standalone entity that the Peabody has overseen since 2017, has no shortage of these kinds of materials in the form of clay documents that have survived for millennia. There are ancient recipes. There is a letter in which a sister tells her brother that he is the sun that lights her world. A legal text conveys the tragic story of an impoverished mother forced to give up her children to adoption. Previously, none have been permanently displayed in the museum’s galleries.

These objects are from thousands of years ago, but we’re all humans,” Lassen said. “We have many of the same wishes, desires, hopes, and dreams.”

Energy, perspective, and wisdom’

The Peabody is also reconsidering its relationship to the Indigenous peoples who originally inhabited the lands that became New Haven and Yale. Oswaldo Morales Solorzano, a Doris Duke conservation fellow, examined converting the university’s land acknowledgement into a digital format and other ways of showcasing the legacies and continued presence of Indigenous peoples in Connecticut.

Nixon said that the museum has an advantage as it pursues these changes: Buy-in from its staff and leadership, including Peabody Director David Skelly.

From day one, there was something unique about Dave’s commitment,” Nixon said. “He told me, ‘We don’t know how to do this work in an effective way, but we’re hard after it. We won’t waver just because it is new to us.’ He’s been true to that word.”

The trust invested in the former Sci.CORPS members demonstrates the museum’s willingness to try new approaches and value unique perspectives, Nixon said. He praised the former museum interpreters for their commitment and insights.

They bring enormous resources to the museum,” he said. “They bring an energy, perspective, and wisdom that is really invigorating. They’ve really helped us to see things in a different way.”

For her part, Ghazali looks forward to seeing visitors enjoy their work when the museum reopens, with free admission, in 2024.

Growing up in New Haven, Yale doesn’t always seem like the most accessible place,” she said. “It feels removed despite being close to home. You don’t imagine yourself being welcomed into these spaces and invited to help change them. I’m happy to see the Peabody take on these issues, and I’m excited to see our work on the gallery’s walls.”

Share this with Facebook Share this with Twitter Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this

Media Contact

Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,