A living museum: Unpacking history at the Peabody

It’s easy for a visitor to Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History to think that the museum starts with the giant squid hanging above the lobby and ends with a trip to the gift store. But past the life-sized Torosaurus statue and beyond the Great Hall lies a veritable treasure trove that began even before the museum’s founding in 1866

In fact, the vast majority of the museum’s holdings aren’t on display, and with good reason: They include 12.5 million objects that represent more than 600 million years of geological, biological and human history, a mere 1% of which can be exhibited at any given time.

When Tim White started working at the Peabody more than 25 years ago, those treasures were stuffed away in boxes piled high in dank, cramped corners of forgotten rooms scattered throughout different buildings.

“It was difficult to even know what was in the collections, let alone find something specific,” recalls White, the museum’s assistant director for collections and operations.

Today, the Peabody’s treasures are getting the first-class treatment they deserve. Over the past decade, the museum has undergone a rejuvenation on a scale that rivals its massive dinosaur bones. Its collections are being re-housed, rediscovered and restored.

Each year, hundreds of researchers from all over the world visit the museum to study its collections, while thousands more access them online. Museum curators travel the world on collecting expeditions that continue to add to its holdings. Yale faculty members are integrating undergraduate classes with museum initiatives. Far more than a collection of the old and the dead, the museum has never been more busy.

“We had no idea what we had”

When 50,000 square feet of space became available at the West Campus in late 2008, museum staff started moving collections out of their old residences in Kline Geology Laboratory, which was slated to undergo air-handling renovations, and 175 Whitney Ave., which was demolished earlier this year to make way for the new School of Management campus. Now about 40% of the collections are house at West Campus in much more spacious, accessible, climate-controlled facilities.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” White says of the new collections spaces. “This has allowed us to change the way we do things.”

With so many crates and boxes tucked away behind closed doors, even the museum’s curators, collections managers and staff didn’t always know what they contained. Now, new cataloging and digitization projects are underway — including in the conservation department, where Catherine Sease is working to restore and rehouse 61,000 slides of invertebrate and vertebrate organisms, some of which are 150 years old.

“There were bits and pieces thrown together. We had no idea what we had,” says the senior conservator.

Sease and Eric Lazo-Wasem, senior collections manager for Invertebrate Zoology, are painstakingly entering information about every specimen in the collection into a database so that researchers from Yale and elsewhere can access the information online and search for specific items. “We found some amazing things we didn’t even know were there,” Sease says, including samples collected by Charles Lyell, one of Darwin’s close friends and a leading scientist of his time.

In the botany division, one particularly important item went undiscovered for decades, lost in a cabinet of uncataloged specimens. It wasn’t until collections manager Patrick Sweeney invited a colleague, who happened to be a moss expert, to visit the museum in the spring of 2009 that the pair stumbled upon a sheet with a tiny sample of moss attached to it. The sample bore the name of its famous collector: C. Darwin, who had retrieved the species from the Chronos Archipelago in Chile while aboard the Beagle in 1834. “It represents what a treasure trove we have that needs to be explored,” Sweeney said.

The digital revolution

The digital age has given researchers from around the globe unprecedented access to the museum’s vast holding, which are overseen by 25 curators and spread across 11 divisions, including anthropology, botany and the Yale Herbarium, entomology, historical scientific instruments, invertebrate paleontology, invertebrate zoology, meteorites and planetary science, mineralogy, paleobotany, vertebrate paleontology and vertebrate zoology.

Scholars from all over the world flock to the Peabody to study everything from extinct ocean predators to 600-million-year-old fossilized algae to bright green, metallic-looking beetles.

In the Yale Herbarium, Sweeney oversees 350,000 plant specimens from throughout the world. Since 2008, a team of students and volunteers have captured 50,000 that are native to Connecticut online as part of a consortium of herbariums across North America that are simultaneously contributing to a massive digitization project. Sweeney is also working with students from New Haven’s Common Ground High School on creating an inventory of plant species found in West Rock Ridge State Park. Beginning this spring, the students will take images of the different species they come across using GPS-enabled cameras, which will then be used to make a map of the region’s flora.

Shusheng Hu, the collections manager for paleobotany, and former collections manager Linda Klise oversaw the digitization of 160,000 fossils, many of which are now accessible online. The two are now directing another project whereby volunteers are digitizing 10,000 index cards with pictures and descriptions of different fossil plant species as well. The oldest of these were collected nearly 200 years ago, some of them by Benjamin Silliman (of the eponymous Yale residential college). The collection is one of the largest fossil plant collection in North America, and Hu estimates that five times as many researchers now visit the paleobotany collections to study the taxonomy and evolution of plants compared to several years ago.

Such massive digitization projects wouldn’t be possible without leagues of student and community volunteers, but over on the West Campus, which houses the museum’s collection of historical instruments, the museum’s curatorial staff have gotten some robotic help as well. Two dedicated book scanners are hard at work each day, scanning pages of scientific ledgers that past researchers — most of whom lived long before the advent of robots or scanners — kept during field expeditions. One machine can scan up to 2,400 pages per hour, and so far nearly 300 of the 840 legers have been scanned and entered into an online database.

“What these scanners can do in 15 minutes would take a human a whole day,” White says.

“It’s sort of like Christmas morning”

In addition to cataloging and digitizing old collections, many of the museum’s curators continue to actively collect specimens in the field. Staff or faculty from nine of the museum’s 11 divisions regularly embark on collecting trips around the world, with Peabody staff, curators and researchers working in 54 countries and on every continent of the globe.

Thomas Near, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and assistant curator of vertebrate zoology, uses molecular tools to study the evolution of fish and has increased the museum’s fish collection by 50% over the past four years alone, with frequent trips across North America and Antarctica. He hosts regular “fish sorting parties” with the undergraduates who work in his lab to help uncover what he finds, which often includes new species. Along with his students, he uses tissue samples from the specimens he collects for his lab work, while the remainder of the specimens are prepared and added to the museum’s vertebrate zoology collection.

Making discoveries is what collecting trips are all about, says Susan Butts, the collections manager for invertebrate paleontology. When she returned from a collecting expedition in Morocco last May, she couldn’t wait to sort through the fossils she’d brought back with her. “It’s sort of like Christmas morning,” she says about discovering new species of marine life that long ago went extinct. Butts, who heads a program to bring graduate students to the Peabody from around the country in order to study the division’s holding, uses the collections herself to study ancient marine environments and global climate change throughout history, as well as the process by which shells fossilize.

Other researchers collect samples that were alive just a short time ago, including Leonard Munstermann, curator of entomology, who recently returned from an expedition to French Guiana. There, along with a team from the Connecticut Entomological Society, he conducted an inventory of the different insects of the region, which included moths, butterflies, dragonflies, biting flies and beetles, among others.

“We collected literally thousands of specimens,” he says. “Chances are good that we will find a new species.” To be sure, Munstermann will ship potential candidates to various experts across the country for their analysis. Once returned, they will be prepared and added to the permanent collection. The whole process can take years; in the meantime, other expeditions will continue the search for new material.

A 180-degree transformation

Despite the Peabody’s venerable history, its evolution over the past decade just may be the most significant change it’s gone through since its doors opened to the public in 1876, say those who work there. For White, even the transformation over the 27 years he’s been at the institution has been remarkable. Long gone are the days of dusty boxes shoved into cramped spaces where no one could experience, let alone explore, the wonders of the Peabody’s collections.

“We’ve gone through a renaissance,” he says. “I honestly think we’re now one of the best university natural history museums in the world.”

Click here to learn more about work done by Peabody researchers in the field.

By Suzanne Taylor Muzzin

Campus & Community

Media Contact

Suzanne Taylor Muzzin: [email protected], 203-432-8555