Interview with Dr. David Skelly, Director of the Yale Peabody Museum: On the Closing of the Museum for the Next Three Years
Featured image: The envisioned layout of the Peabody Museum after the upcoming renovations. Courtesy of the “Peabody Evolved” website.
Director David Skelly of the Peabody Museum. Courtesy of the “Peabody Evolved” website.
By Shayaan Subzwari
Can you give some background about yourself and your years with the Peabody Museum?
I’ve been here at Yale for 23 years and I’m a professor at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where I teach ecology. I have been at the Peabody for almost as long—I’ve been a curator here for about 20 years in the division of vertebrate zoology, so I study amphibians. We use them in my lab to understand how humans are changing the Earth, and how other species like wildlife respond to that. Part of our work is trying to understand how what we as humans do to the planet is an evolutionary force, and how species are adapting or not to those changes.
I’ve been coming to the Peabody Museum since I was about 5 years old. I grew up not too far from here, so this is where I learned about all kinds of aspects of what I do now professionally, it’s where I learned that you can have a career in this. So, in many ways, being in the role that I’m in now is full circle. You know, I started out coming here totally turned on about dinosaurs and now I get to run the place—which is fun!
Prior to these renovations, what are some of the most significant changes and events you’ve witnessed taking place at the Peabody and what has this been like?
The museum has been around for over 150 years and it’s been very closely tied to the research and teaching missions of the university in that whole time. In fact, the Peabody was founded as part of an effort to make the sciences a bigger part of Yale, all the way back in the 1860s. And that really succeeded. Over the generations, the sciences as a whole have grown tremendously at Yale, and the Peabody over that period of time hasn’t grown as fast. Nor maybe should it, but the proportion of the students that it was serving had gone down. So even prior to the reservations, when I started as director in 2014, one of the first things that I was really keen to do was to expand and to diversify our range of contacts with Yale students. And so we created an Office of Student Programs, which is run by a person named David Heiser, and he now has a staff of a few people. Their job, first and foremost, is to make it very easy for students to access the museum and its resources, and also for the people who teach Yale students to do that. And so they’ve greatly increased as a team, the number of courses that are using the museum as a setting for teaching, using the collections of the museum, and using the human resources of the museum.
We’re already very well connected with the new Science Building. If you go into the new lecture hall, it’s named the O.C. Marsh Lecture Hall after the first director of the museum. That’s why there are dinosaur skulls in the lobby there. And that connection is specifically so that Peabody programming can take place outside the hours that the lecture hall is being used for courses. And that includes different kinds of programming such as visiting speakers and other sorts of events that we have that are aimed both at Yale audiences and our public mission. Beyond that, what I’m very much hoping is that when the museum reopens, it will feel very much like it is connected to the campus at large. And specifically for the departments that are in the Yale Science Building, that they see this as a place that connects to what they do. One of the changes that will happen when we reopen is that on the second floor, all these offices are going away, and this will be exhibit space. And on the other end of the hallway, there is going to be a gallery on the history of science and technology that very much focuses on how the sciences grew and diversified at Yale, so the major discoveries that were made here over the years. So that’s going to be a way that biologists and chemists and physicists here at Yale can feel like this museum is embracing what they do as well.
What are you expecting some of the renovations to look like and how will they change the Peabody?
Other than the fact that this building is over 90 years old and most of the exhibits are decades old, just updating the exhibits and updating the narratives that go along with them will be a big improvement—that would happen in any renovation. Something though that I would emphasize, that we’re very excited about is that the exhibition strategy will become much more dynamic. We are intentionally designing the casework and the exhibition approach to allow for and encourage turnover in the exhibit so that as new people and new ideas come on the scene, we can incorporate them into our exhibition strategy. We’re also working on developing a new digital application that will support the interpretation of the exhibits. So, right now when you go to most museums, there are labels on rails and on the walls that the curators and the exhibition teams want you to read to interpret and so that you know what’s going on. I don’t expect those signs to go away any time soon, but what we can do in addition to that is put content into your hand or into your head through a headset, so that you can essentially drive your own experience, in two ways.
One way is that before you come into the galleries, you can choose a channel so that if you want somebody whose expertise is the history of life on Earth, great. If it’s somebody that’s teaching about the current environmental crisis around climate, they can take you through the galleries in a different narrative.
And then the second thing that can happen based on the approach that we hope to take is that you drive the tour. If we end up doing what we hope to do, just by walking around and looking at something, you will drive what content you hear. We’re working with the Center for Engineering Innovation & Design (CEID) on that technology to make that happen. And we feel like that’s the way that people, particularly our younger visitors, are going to feel most comfortable acting with a museum—if they feel like they are driving and are in charge.
What circumstances have brought about the renovations and why are they taking place now?
Part of it is the overall need, you know with the old building and all that, but that’s not enough to get it done. There’s a couple of answers. An institutional answer is that some of Yale’s incredible resources are these collections. The Art Gallery, the Beinecke, the Center for British Art, and the Peabody are the anchors of collections that aren’t really matched by many universities around the world. And so, it makes a lot of sense to make sure that the way that those are being accessed takes full advantage of them. And so institutionally as a strategy, what Yale has been doing over the last 15 years or so, is that for each of these collections, starting with the Art Gallery, the physical infrastructure, the buildings have been renovated in a way that brings teaching into them. So, if you take classes at the Art Gallery, they have a set of classrooms there where art objects are brought into contact with the classes and there are staff there that can support those visits, and where faculty from anywhere around campus can incorporate the Art Gallery’s collections into their teaching. That was very successful and became a model for the Beinecke to undergo renovations under comparable lines. And the Center of British Art has done the same thing; they created a classroom to support that kind of thing. And now, it’s the turn of the Peabody to do that—to kind of round out that strategy and to bring these collections into greater contact with the teaching mission at a time when the way students learn and the way the people who teach them operate is changing and diversifying. And using experiences and using objects to teach is going to be a big part of the future of the university, I think.
The other thing to say is that you can’t do it without a gift. We were very fortunate to have a lead gift that made it possible to even think about this, and then we’ve been able to do additional fundraising to get us to where the project has a green light to go ahead.
During the renovations, what are the plans for the dinosaurs and other artifacts that will have to be relocated?
Almost all the mounts that are in the fossil halls are decades and decades old, and in many cases, the way they are mounted doesn’t reflect our current understanding of the way these animals looked and the way they lived. So, the major mounts are headed off to a fossil preparator company called RCI in Ontario, Canada, and they’re going to spend a couple of years there getting what you might think of as a “spa treatment.” And then coming back, there will be a lot of conservation work, prep work, and remounting in new postures for when the hall reopens. Some of the fossils will be the same but they’ll be mounted in ways that will look very different from what they look like today. Overall, the exhibitions in the fossil galleries and so on are going to be more integrated than they are now, in that there will be a kind of coherence to the way the different specimens are being displayed next to each other and the stories they’re telling.
And we’re going to tackle themes that we really don’t have permanent exhibits on right now, like the gallery that will run right along Whitney Avenue is going to be dedicated to exploring what happens to the Earth when humans evolve. So it will tell the story of human evolution and the ways in which humans have interacted with the planet in all kinds of ways, from the megafaunal extinctions that happen as humans come in contact with a bigger and bigger fraction of the Earth, to the rise of agriculture and domestication, and kind of culminating with how we’re interacting with the atmosphere and the entire planet.
Given the closure of the Peabody for the next three years, what lies ahead for you and the many other employees of the Museum?
When people hear that the galleries are closing, they kind of wonder if we’re just going to lay everybody off or what’s going to happen. And the fact of the matter is that when you walk into a research museum, a university museum, like the Peabody, what you’re looking at is the tip of the iceberg. Everything that’s on display here and all the interpretations and everything is based on the collections and the research around them, and that activity involves most of the staff and most of the collections are not on display, so all of that stuff keeps going. Our exhibition team is going to be very busy designing and then creating the new exhibitions. Our education team that focuses on K-12 education, their work continues—they’re just going to do it at other sites. Other than the galleries themselves and our store, the other activities mostly keep going. And so that means for Yale students, access to the collections and teaching with the collections will all keep going.
Shayaan Subzwari is a first-year in Silliman College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.