From beneath the Peabody, a time capsule from 1923

As the museum undergoes a major renovation, a recently unearthed trove of century-old documents offers a unique perspective into an earlier period of renewal.
Researcher extracts documents from the time capsule

(Photos by Dan Renzetti)

In 1923, as the Yale Peabody Museum was under construction on the corner of Sachem Street and Whitney Avenue, a time capsule was embedded beneath the southeast corner. This spring — 99 years later — amid the museum’s latest transformation, construction workers removed it, guided by instructions left behind, the necessary prelude to a long-awaited peek inside.

On July 25, about 40 members of the Peabody’s staff gathered in room 110 of the Environmental Studies Center, which adjoins the museum, as the box was emptied. If it contained no mind-blowing artifacts, the capsule’s contents nonetheless offered a unique perspective into a prior period of Peabody renewal.

Peabody staff members gathered to watch the capsule opening

Before the big reveal, conservator Mariana Di Giacomo and Museum Assistant Lynn Jones had spent about three hours carefully chiseling off the capsule’s lid, placing the box in a fume hood as they worked to guard against toxic lead dust. Now, with the crowd gathered, the opened box was set on a long, narrow table and the lid removed. Di Giacomo lifted a folded piece of white paper from inside the box, a copy of the program from a ceremony marking the laying of the building’s cornerstone held on June 18, 1923. The document was in excellent condition.

This is where the fun begins,” said Di Giacomo, who had donned latex gloves before delving into the box, which is 120 cubic inches in volume — about the size of a thick hardcover book. (Typically, she wouldn’t use gloves when handling artifacts or archival material — they reduce dexterity — but the lead made them necessary in this case.)

Mariana Di Giacomo
Mariana Di Giacomo

The unveiling was simulcast via Zoom to staff members working remotely and youngsters attending the museum’s summer camp. A document camera on the table offered the remote audience close-up views of the box’s revelations. It was all captured on video.

Using a thin, stainless-steel spatula, Di Giacomo pried away a rectangular piece of cardboard — an old nemesis to conservators due to its high acid content — revealing a description of the box’s contents and a photograph of George Peabody, the 19th-century financier and philanthropist whose $150,000 gift in 1866 enabled the museum’s founding, which was in excellent condition.

Photograph of George Peabody

It’s amazing how everything is so well preserved,” Di Giacomo said. “This lead box did its job.”

The box was tightly packed with documents that largely concerned the museum’s history. For example, a stapled, 20-page synopsis of the museum’s development included descriptions of the exhibits in its original building, which opened in 1876 on the corner of High and Elm streets. (The building was demolished in 1917 to make room for Saybrook College. The current building opened in 1925.)

The capsule also contained a copy of George Peabody’s letter, dated Oct. 2, 1866, announcing his gift “for the foundation and maintenance of a museum of natural history, especially of the departments of zoology, geology, and minerology in connection with Yale College.”

There were a trove of documents relating to Othniel Charles “O.C.” Marsh, the pioneering 19th-century Yale paleontologist whose famous expeditions in the American West yielded groundbreaking fossil discoveries, including the type specimens of Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops. (Marsh, who was George Peabody’s nephew, had secured his uncle’s foundational gift.) The Marsh materials included reprints of his scholarly articles, a catalog of his scientific discoveries, multiple portrait photographs of him at various stages of life, and a New York Tribune article dated Dec. 22, 1874, recounting a “perilous fossil hunt” Marsh had conducted in the Badlands of South Dakota.   

The box contained relics of other significant figures from the museum’s past, including invertebrate paleontologist Charles Everson Beecher, mineralogist George Jarvis Brush, and renowned scientist James Dwight Dana, the Silliman Professor of Natural History and Geology in Yale College from 1850 to 1892. Dana’s son, Edward Salisbury Dana, a mineralogist and physics professor at Yale, gave a speech at the cornerstone ceremony. A copy of his address was included in the time capsule along with the May 11, 1923, edition of the Yale Alumni Weekly offering details about the new museum building, and maps of New Haven and Yale’s campus, among other documents.

Yale Alumni Weekly from May 11, 1923

All the capsule’s materials are likely already included in the museum’s archives or in the papers of Marsh and the other individuals represented, said Barbara Narendra, the museum’s archivist.

The reveal produced one mystery: The names “James Taylor” and “Janis Davis” were scratched into the box’s interior along with the date, June 12, 1923. It is not clear who James and Janis were or what role they played in assembling the capsule.

The names “James Taylor” and “Janis Davis” scratched into the box’s interior along with the date, June 12, 1923

For her part, Di Giacomo had a blast revealing the capsule’s secrets.

For a conservator, this is a field day,” she said, the capsule’s former contents laid out in a series of boxes on the table beside her. “It was so much fun.”

The retrospective nature of the capsule’s contents was striking, noted Peabody Director David Skelly.

O.C. Marsh had died 24 years before the time capsule was assembled and he was the dominant figure represented inside it,” Skelly said. “I think that says something about that moment in the history of natural history. There was a glory period in the 19th-century when natural history museums were a huge innovation and Marsh played a major role in that. By 1923, his legacy still loomed very large.

Today, we’re much more focused on the future and thinking about new ways to share our collections with scholars and the public and new questions we can explore through them,” he added.

The Peabody’s current renovation — made possible by a $160 million gift from Edward P. Bass ’68 B.S. — will increase the museum’s exhibit footprint by 50%, and create new spaces for research and teaching with Peabody collections. An addition will feature a new tower and a light-filled Central Gallery for hosting events throughout the year.

The museum’s staff is assembling a new time capsule, which will be embedded in the addition’s cornerstone. The new time capsule should have a more colorful, light-hearted vibe than its predecessor, Skelly said. All the museum’s staff members were invited to select items for inclusion that reflect various aspects of the current moment in the museum’s history, including a thumb drive containing nearly 8 million digital records and 1 million photos from the museum’s collections, a Yale-branded mask from the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and an (empty) bottle of champagne opened when the staff learned that the renovation was approved.

It’ll be an eclectic mix of materials,” Skelly said. “I expect whoever opens it in the future will get a kick out of it.”

The Peabody Museum is expected to reopen in 2024.

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