Mural Support

Mural Support

One of the most valued items in the Great Hall at the Peabody Museum of Natural History is only 71 years old, a mere newborn compared to the fossilized bones of the museum’s famous brontosaurus. Since 1943, when artist and Yale graduate Rudolph Zallinger first climbed a scaffold to begin painting, visitors have been drawn to his 110-foot-long, 16-foot-high mural The Age of Reptiles. The mural, a timeline that traces the natural history of Earth beginning 362 million years ago and ending in the Cretaceous Period with the extinction of the big dinosaurs, was completed in 1947.

Now, as the Peabody plans to undertake a two-year renovation, the preservation of The Age of Reptiles—as well as Zallinger’s later, smaller mural of mammals in the adjacent gallery—is being delicately engineered.

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“Not only is it a fantastic work of art, but it’s also a really, really key part of the stories that we want to tell ,” says Chris Norris, collections manager for paleontology at the Peabody. When the renovation is complete, the Great Hall’s familiar dinosaur skeletons will be remounted to better reflect current research. For example, the brontosaurus’s tail will be 16 feet longer and suspended to balance his body, rather than dragging on the ground. Zallinger’s mural, Norris says, will give visitors an opportunity to ask why the skeletons and the painting look so different. “The answer is because we did more research… Science is a process of developing, where we keep asking new questions every year, and we keep finding new ways to answer them every year.”

Zallinger was only in his early 20s when he was hired out of Yale’s fine arts program to spruce up the Great Hall with what was first conceived as a series of individual paintings, says Armand Morgan, senior instructor in the museum’s education department. Shortly after he began, Zallinger came up with the idea of turning the paintings into a timeline mural covering 300 million years of plant and animal evolution, running from right to left in consort with the organization of the hall’s exhibits. He spent six months working with curators to design the project, then nearly another year doing an egg tempera painting—a six-foot-long, finely detailed study for the larger piece—using Medieval painting techniques in which he’d been trained.

While Zallinger was at work on the image itself, the Great Hall’s wall was prepped with steel lath and plaster. A two-tiered scaffold with a rolling cart was built, and Zallinger laid out a grid of two-and-a-half-foot squares to guide him. He drew the scene in charcoal, then painted shadows and finally added multiple layers of color. Following a Renaissance-era fresco secco technique, the mural was painted directly on the wall using jars of pigment mixed with casein glue.

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Morgan delights in pointing out the details of the “iconic” work: the “thousands of small lines that define the scales,” the iridescent coloring on some of their bellies, the layers of the landscape that go “back and back and back.” He’s one of the few who has had the privilege of examining the mural up close. “It’s stunning, when you’re up there, to see that much attention to detail.”

Because it was painted directly onto the wall, there’s no question of moving The Age of Reptiles. So engineers at Turner Construction Company are inventing a way to cover and protect the mural during upcoming construction while still allowing museum staff access to it. “What we asked Turner to do was literally to encapsulate it,” explains Carol DeNatale, Yale’s project director for the renovation, who works in partnership with Yale senior architect Kristina Chmelar. That “encapsulation” includes not only the mural side but also the back of the wall, providing a controlled climate “to both of those surfaces all throughout the construction period, so that there wouldn’t be a shock to the painted surface or even to the brick substrate that is behind ,” DeNatale says.

Using a three-dimensional virtual model of the building from the project’s architects, Turner built a “virtual encapsulation” for approval. “We literally put on augmented reality goggles to view the structure that they will build,” DeNatale says.

Inspiration for the design of the structure came from Zallinger’s original scaffolding, Turner construction manager Chris Meyer says. The goal is to understand potential risks—leaks, humidity, mold growth, delamination of the surface—and figure out how to mitigate them. Cameras, vibration sensors and other high-tech monitoring devices will likely be used, but so will good old-fashioned windows. “I want any passerby to know and be able to visually see, ‘Hey, that’s not right. Someone better get out here and look at it,’” Meyer says.

That level of concern attests to the value the Peabody staff places on Zallinger’s work of art. But they aren’t the only ones who’ve recognized its significance over the years. In 1953, a 13-part Life magazine series, The World We Live In, featured a fold-out section of the entire mural, printed backwards to shift the timeline from left to right. (The magazine used Zallinger’s egg tempera painting because photographing the mural for reproduction was, at that time, too difficult.) That magazine fold-out—specifically, the mural’s tyrannosaurus—was later used by Japanese filmmakers to design the monster Godzilla, Morgan says, and Marx Toys was inspired by the mural to create a series of popular dinosaur toys.

Those seeking their own inspiration from the mural are still in luck for now. The renovation timeline is “a moving target,” DeNatale says, but the museum will remain open at least through May of 2020, with a full summer camp planned for 2019.

“There’s a generation of people like me… that grew up with this painting, and it was what we knew about dinosaurs,” Norris says as we stand beneath the impressive, colorful representation of reptilian history. With care and attention, another generation will be able to grow up with Zallinger’s masterpiece, too.

The Age of Reptiles by Rudolph Zallinger
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History – 170 Whitney Ave, New Haven
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm
(203) 432-5050…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 photographed by Dan Mims. Images 2 (depicting Rudolph Zallinger at work) and 4, 6, 8 and 10 (featuring mural detail) provided courtesy of the Peabody. All images feature elements of The Age of Reptiles, © 1966, 1975, 1985, 1989 Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University.

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