Peabody Museum Nostalgia

Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, an institution over 150 years old, is about to undergo a major renovation. The building in which it stands was built in 1924, and the collection is now straining at the seams. If everything goes according to plan, a complete overhaul of the first floor will begin in 2020, and renovations of the second floor will start in 2021. So before the whole thing changes, I thought I would make a recording of my childhood stomping grounds.


I have to assume (or hope) that the new Peabody will still have a Great Hall. This giant first-floor room houses dinosaur bones of all kinds, including those of thickset horned dinos such as the torosaurus and the triceratops


… and the agile, sharp-clawed deinonychus (it had retractable talons!):

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But the main feature of the rom, the backdrop to everything, is the tremendous 1947 Age of Reptiles mural by Rudolph Zallinger.


This giant masterpiece, which stands 16-feet tall and 100-feet long, took four and a half years to paint. A “panorama of time,” it takes the viewer along 300 million years of history, from the origin of land vertebrates to the extinction of the dinosaurs. I am sure that they will keep the mural in the upcoming renovations, because this is a highlight of the museum. The painting is work of art unto itself…


… and if you stand underneath, you can read a panel that identifies each individual dinosaur …


… as they (and their vegetal backdrop) evolved and changed over time:


You can also see examples of petrified wood (here, the cross-section of the trunk of an araucaria tree from Arizona) … fullsizeoutput_473e
… and in a room just next door, you can explore the evolution of flight, starting with this cast of an archaeopteryx (a Jurassic flying dinosaur that had both the feathers of a bird and the teeth and bony tail of a reptile) …


… and a tiny, perfect fossilized feather from the Eocene Epoch:


Upstairs in the bird room, I have always been fascinated with the skeleton of the long-extinct dodo:


Last seen in the late 1600s, the dodo lived on the island of Mauritius near Madagascar — and its flightless, ground-nesting life made it easy prey for European hunters and pests like dogs and rats. No one knows what they really looked like, but legends have developed of their being bulky and clunky (though one modern theory suggests that they may actually have been fairly athletic). This model of a fat dodo, built in the mid-1900s, is crafted out of chicken feathers, duck wings, and an ostrich-feather tail:


As a side note, if you’ve ever wondered what’s inside a taxidermied bird, you can find out here (it’s a combination of cotton, string, and wire):


The rest of the Peabody’s bird displays focus on Birds of Connecticut, including various species of woodpeckers:



But my very favorite rooms of the Peabody have always been the North American dioramas — and these are the displays that I most fear will be tossed out in the renovations (dioramas seem largely to be a thing of the curatorial past). For a small child whose world view did not extend farther geographically than Maine to the north and West Virginia to the south, these dioramas gave me pictures into realms far beyond my own. I could travel to the timber line of the Canadian Rockies, with their regal bighorn sheep …


… to the Alaskan tundra, with its imposing brown bears …


… to the shortgrass plains of Wyoming, with a family of grazing bison …

fullsizeoutput_4726 … or to the Kaibab Plateau just north of the Grand Canyon, with gentle mule deer standing in the desert.


These weren’t just bits of taxidermy set into painted scenery — for me, they were a an immersive experience. And they were also a challenge: the collared peccary is pretty easy to find in this diorama …


… but labels invite you to search out less obvious creatures like gila monsters, cactus wrens, scorpions — and, in this small corner, a roadrunner, a ground squirrel, a hedgehog cactus, and a diamond-backed rattlesnake:


Not all of the dioramas were this transportive; I instantly recognized the scene from the edge of a Connecticut forest:

I love the educational text that accompanies the dioramas, though they require patient reading. Here is a selection from the scene above: “The GREY SQUIRREL that hides behind the sugar maple trunk, has been busy burying acorns, storing what it cannot eat of autumn’s bounty. The RED SQUIRREL, its small relative, stores shucked conifer seeds, as well as nuts, dried mushrooms, and acorns for the coming winter. A WOODLAND JUMPING MOUSE bounds over the forest floor, gathering seeds and putting on the six or more grams of fat that will enable it to hibernate until April.”

A small model explains how these dioramas were made. Crafted in the 1940s by three men, Perry Wilson, Francis Lee Jacques, and Ralph C. Morrill, they were first brought to life in small-scale painted models of miniature landscapes:


These would eventually be turned into full-scale renderings — here, we see the model become a diorama of a cold bog from Litchfield County, Connecticut:


These displays all bring me back to my youth, so I cannot see them with an objective eye. I suspect that they all need updating from the perspective of a contemporary curator. But while I have no idea what the renovations at the Peabody will hold, I hope that the giant squid will continue to hang over the entry hall (having this overhead is a deliciously scary way for children to start their visit):


The renovations will probably preserve the David Friend Hall of gems and minerals, since that has been so recently refurbished, and I can only hope that a diorama or two will make it through the overhaul unscathed. In the meantime, they’ll be around and open for viewing for at least another year, so visit while you can!


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