Self-Discovery

A s the Peabody Museum of Natural History undergoes a multi-year renovation, its own history is being unearthed.

The museum, located at 170 Whitney Avenue since 1925, is currently a massive construction site. Inside, exposed beams hang over bags of cement, lengths of pipe and spools of electrical wire, and the Great Hall that brimmed for decades with dinosaur skeletons is filled with scaffolding instead. Climate-controlled, windowed enclosures protect the museum’s historic murals, while upstairs the life-sized dioramas are shielded with corrugated plastic panels. Outside, a giant crane looms over the museum roof like the neck of an industrial dinosaur, and the life-sized Torosaurus statue in front is nearly dwarfed by a system of air handling units for stabilizing the climate inside.

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As artifacts were relocated and walls and ceilings came down, one of the most exciting finds uncovered by Peabody staff and the crew of Turner Construction Company was a series of fossilized dinosaur footprints, or trackways, stored in a columned wall that had divided two research areas. On one side, rolling compactors, or storage units, had always revealed glimpses of trackways on the wall behind them. But no one knew that on the other side, a wall of cabinets storing anthropology materials was hiding a second set. The day those cabinets were removed was “a very exciting day for us here at the museum because there had not been anyone with a living memory of what was behind [them],” says Vanessa Rhue, collection manager of vertebrate paleontology.

Accession numbers on the rediscovered trackways led to the vast museum catalog, where Rhue and her colleagues learned they had been donated in 1889. The trackways are part of the Newark Supergroup—an East Coast grouping of rock outcrops—and date back to the Upper Triassic period. Their tracks are so new to today’s researchers that they haven’t even been counted yet or identified by species. Some of the trackways will remain in place, Rhue says, while others have been moved to storage at Yale’s West Campus. Similar fossil tracks that were already known will be on display in the new museum.

Another surprise was the rediscovery of a mural on the first floor in what used to be a temporary gallery across from the gift shop. It was commissioned as the backdrop for a 1996-97 exhibition of a shrine from Suriname and painted directly on a brick wall by John Maisano, at the time one of the museum’s exhibit designers and an artist-in-residence. Afterward, it was covered with drywall “and then largely forgotten about until construction began,” says Chris Renton, the Peabody’s associate director of marketing and communications. When the mural was found, its picture was posted on Facebook, where Maisano, who now lives in Austin, saw it and marveled, “wow how is that still there…” The mural will be covered up to be rediscovered again, Renton says.

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Also uncovered were some forgotten architectural features original to the museum’s design. A laylight, or glass skylight ceiling, on the third floor had been painted over and then covered with a drop ceiling to conceal HVAC units installed beneath it. “We had considered around 2005 or 2006 to take the drop ceiling out… just to create more volume in the space, but we really weren’t sure of what was above it,” says Tim White, the Peabody’s director of collections and research. When the construction crew “started pulling the drop ceiling down, it was one of those ‘holy cow’ moments.” While the laylight can’t be restored, the ceiling will be raised again, with new daylight spectrum lighting to simulate the original atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the addition of walls and dioramas had also affected the feel of the upper galleries, hiding a motif of double arches. Those that can be reopened will be, echoing the design of the lobby and first floor, where arches have long been visible, and adding to the overall plan for a more open flow. “Now, on all three floors, you’ll be able to do a complete 360, which just makes it a far more interesting space to visit,” White says.

The removal of exhibits and carpeting on the third floor revealed another unexpected feature. An octagonal seam in the concrete, once located directly beneath an interactive globe in the Hall of Minerals, Earth and Space, marks the peak of the lobby ceiling below. This spot in the floor was originally open, the pass-through for a pendulum that hung from the third-floor ceiling to the lobby. Natural pendulums were a popular feature in early 20th-century museums, Renton says, admitting that the Peabody’s might have “needed a little push” every morning to get going. Visitors will be able to see this spot, filled in around 1960, when they walk the polished concrete of the completed third floor.

Other relics of the past have turned up as well: messages from former workers scrawled in out-of-the-way places, a smiley face painted on brick, even empty Schlitz beer cans, which were found inside a wall, “undoubtedly left by folks rebuilding the Mammal Hall” in the 1960s, Renton says. In turn, today’s staff are leaving their hidden mark for the future. Many signed a steel beam that’ll be suspended over the central gallery, and a time capsule will soon be installed in the reimagined building.

Made possible by a $160 million lead gift from businessman, alumnus and former trustee Ed Bass, the renovation plan includes a brighter, more open layout, more exhibition space, an expanded lobby, a courtyard accessible from Whitney Avenue, new classrooms for Yale and public school students, increased storage and research facilities, a larger Discovery Room, a four-story tower to house a not-yet-revealed surprise and a three-story glass-topped central gallery. Construction is expected to wrap up one year from now, and it will take another year to move in and set up exhibits. Reopening is planned for early 2024, and when the doors swing open, there won’t be a cashier waiting. Thanks to Bass’s gift, admission will be free to all.

While insiders have enjoyed all of the unexpected reveals so far, museum staffers are looking forward to the day when they can reveal the new digs to visitors. One oft-mentioned future feature: a 40-foot-long mosasaur chasing a 10-foot-long Archelon turtle suspended high above the central gallery. “I think that’s just going to be an incredible ‘wow’ moment,” White says, “when people walk through that door.”

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
170 Whitney Ave, New Haven
closed for renovation through early 2024
Online Programming | Renovation Website

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1 and 2, the latter featuring the uncovered mural by John Maisano, photographed by Chris Renton for the Peabody Museum. Images 3 and 5 photographed by Jack Devlin for the Peabody Museum. Image 4 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts somewhat-weekly content on her YouTube channel, Better Book Clubs.

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