Grand Tour

H ow much of the collection at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History is actually on display? 

First you have to know how big the collection is, and before you take a guess, consider this: The Invertebrate Paleontology and Invertebrate Zoology divisions have been in the process of digitally cataloguing their specimens for 30 years. Or consider this: One very large clam shell can count as hundreds, if it’s covered with hundreds of tiny fossilized oysters.

All told, the museum has about 13 million specimens, many of them stored in labs generally inaccessible to the public. But you can get a peek at a tiny sample of these hidden treasures on one of the Peabody’s twice-monthly, space-limited, registration-required, behind-the-scenes tours, held at 4 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of the month during the fall and spring semesters.

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On one recent tour, director of student programs David Heiser led a small group of visitors to the end of a gallery and through a locked door into the rest of the building, where classrooms, offices and labs share space with the remainder of the Peabody’s collections. Soon, Yale sophomore Maya Juman was guiding us through the first half of the tour in the Invertebrate Paleontology collection, where specimens are stored in rolling stacks—shelving that maximizes space by eliminating aisles.

Juman turned a crank to open an aisle between two stacks, then opened a drawer to show us the first find: a large fossilized ammonite from the Jurassic period, about 18 inches in diameter and resembling a modern-day nautilus. In a nearby drawer, a similar specimen had been sliced lengthwise and polished, revealing the spiral of chambers the mollusk had abandoned as it grew.

Among other fossilized treasures were the perfectly articulated impressions of two ancient sea scorpions and several meticulously excavated trilobites, “like giant aquatic pill bugs that lived on the ocean floor,” Juman said. Some drawers held an array of smaller boxes, each cradling the curled remains of palm-sized ammonites, their surfaces shimmering like mother of pearl. That iridescence, Juman explained, comes from structural color—color that appears not because of natural pigmentation but rather due to the play of light off calcium carbonate crystals on the fossil’s surface.

Perhaps most extraordinary was the fossil of a squid—remarkable, Juman said, because soft tissue is so rarely preserved. But this ancient creature had left behind the marks of its tentacles, its ink duct, even its purplish ink sac in a base of limestone.

Our next stop was Entomology. Bugs. Senior Aria Pearlman Morales started us out with three drawers of specimens, including a collection of moths. Could we find the three butterflies hidden among them? (Yes, one visitor could!) One moth looked more like a wasp. The giant wings of another sported spots that resembled the staring eyes of a cat.

Next door, in the “cold room,” kept chilled to protect once-living objects from deterioration, Morales allowed us to roam. Every drawer yielded a new curiosity, but the morpho butterflies drew everyone like moths to a flame. Their brilliant, glimmering blues were irresistible. Another drawer revealed mantises, yet another beetles. Put on a pair of 3D glasses, and you might be able to see their structural greens, blues and oranges, too.

Similarly, there are two ways to view the Peabody. “There’s the public part of the exhibits, designed for education, and then there’s behind the scenes, with collections that have been, in many cases, growing for over 200 years,” Heiser says. That much larger “hidden” part of the collection has served researchers from around the world as well as Yale faculty and students for generations, and continues to do so. “For the people who work in the collections,” Heiser says, “the collections are the museum.”

So, exactly how much of the Peabody’s collection can you see during a regular visit to the museum? Just four hundredths of a percent, Heiser says.

Even if you go “behind the scenes” more than once and see a different division’s collection each time, millions of the Peabody’s treasures will be left to your imagination. But those you do see are likely to capture it.

Behind the Scenes Tours at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
170 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
First and third Tuesdays, 4-5pm; free; space is limited and registration required
(203) 432-8987
www.peabody.yale.edu/events/behind-scenes-collections-tours

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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