New Digs

New Digs

A crowd of hundreds packed into the Great Hall of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, pressing against the railing of the central dinosaur display and spilling through every doorway. Wearing hard hats, preparator Christina Lutz and technician Walter Brenckle climbed a scaffold and clipped themselves in for safety. Cameras were poised for the moment as paleontologist Jacques Gauthier got the crowd chanting, “bron-to-sau-rus, bron-to-sau-rus!”

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Lutz loosened a big screw atop the head of the museum’s largest and perhaps most beloved dinosaur skeleton, which also happens to be the first brontosaurus specimen ever discovered. Together she and Brenckle jiggled the skull from its base, then held the skull aloft to the cheers of the crowd. It was the beginning of a monthlong farewell celebration—“bone voyage,” as the Peabody puts it—for the museum’s collection of dinosaur skeletons, which will be taking a trip to Trenton, Ontario, for repair, refurbishment and remounting while the museum is closed for a massive renovation that’s expected to take about three years.

“They’ve been on display for a long time”—in the case of the brontosaurus, since 1931, says Chris Norris, director of public programs. The head that came off earlier this month was the dinosaur’s second; its first is still on display in a wall case nearby. Both are reproductions, and it turns out neither one is accurate. But a new head won’t be the only change for the big guy, Norris says.

The way the skeletons are currently mounted “doesn’t really reflect the latest scientific information about what these dinosaurs looked like and the way that they lived,” Norris says. For example, their tails will be retooled so they stick out straight—a function of balance, it’s now understood—rather than dragging along the ground. Their new configurations will also allow people to see which parts are actual fossils and which are reproductions. “The tendency back then was to repair the bones and to paint the bones so everything looked the same,” Norris says. Restorers will “clean off all that paint and allow people to see what is actually fossil bone versus what was filled in with plaster and other materials.” In addition, “Some of that material will have aged, and it needs to be replaced,” he says.

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The work will be done by Research Casting International, the Canadian company that has just completed work on the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of fossils, many of which came from the same digs as the Peabody’s collection. According to Peabody director David Skelly, while the museum’s founding curator for paleontology, O. C. Marsh, was at Yale, he was also working for the US Geological Survey. “During that period, half of what he recovered stayed here, and the other half went to DC and became part of the Smithsonian collection,” Skelly says.

Not everyone digs the plan for the new digs. Three years is a long time for New Haven’s seven-year-olds to wait. But the wait will be worth it, Skelly insists. The renovation will increase the Peabody’s space by 50%, in part by utilizing what is now an unused gravel “courtyard” hidden in the U shape of the building. Keen observers may be able to see a fraction of that space from the pathway in front of the museum. The renovation will include new classroom and meeting spaces, storage and research facilities, a long central gallery three stories high and a terrace on the north side of the building, linking it to the Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center and Kline Geology Lab. A virtual tour gives a sense of the plan.

Visitors in 2023 (or whenever the museum reopens) will also find some changes to the displays. The large sea turtle currently at the front end of the Great Hall will be mounted overhead in the new central gallery, fleeing from a mosasaur nicknamed Sophie—a “brand new” gift from Yale alumnus Coleman P. Burke ’63. The brontosaurus will retake its central position in the Great Hall after the renovation, but “you’re going to be able to walk underneath the neck and the tail of the brontosaurus and get much closer than you can now, and that will generally be true for most of the mounts,” Skelly says. The increased gallery space will also allow for the display of an “incredible collection related to the history of science and technology,” Skelly notes, including one of the first particle accelerators, the telescope through which Halley’s Comet was first seen in North America and the first high-quality microscope made in North America.

If you haven’t had a chance to say “see you later” to the dinosaurs yet, there’s still time. The Great Hall and Mammal Hall are open through December 31, with “Dino December” crafts and activities every Saturday. The rest of the museum will remain open through the end of June 2020. After the building closes, the Peabody will be taking its programming out into the community, Norris says.

Being out of the public eye is nothing new for the Peabody’s brontosaurus, whose skeleton was in storage for decades before curators finally pieced it together “like a big jigsaw puzzle,” Norris says. That project took six years. “It won’t take us six years to take it apart,” he says.

Just a few weeks this winter will do the trick. Then, when it and its skeletal companions return, they should be ready for another few generations of New Haven’s kids and parents to enjoy.

Peabody Museum of Natural History
170 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12-5pm
(203) 432-8987

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 2 and 3 feature Walter Brenckle and Christina Lutz.

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