Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Future on Display

Climb in a cab at New Haven’s Union Station and say you’re going to the Peabody Museum and I guarantee that you will probably have a conversation that goes something like this:

“The Peabody Museum, huh? Man, I love that place! I used to go there on school trips when I was a kid. Took my grandson there last week and it was awesome – it’s like nothing’s changed!”

Of course, there have been many changes at the Peabody over the last few decades but, rightly or wrongly, most people’s perception of the Museum is shaped by the Great Hall. And, truth be told, it hasn’t changed much. Take a look at the image that I’ve posted with the blog and tell me what decade it comes from – 80s, 90s, or 00s?

If you answered 00s you’d be wrong. Actually you’d be wrong on all three counts, because the photo was taken in the 1970s. While other museums like AMNH, Carnegie, the ROM, and Denver have all launched new fossil exhibits, Yale’s displays have remained genteelly anchored in the 1950s.

This is a pity, because Yale was one of the leaders in displaying fossil material. Back in 1925, when the Great Hall was opened, it represented the cutting edge for museum displays. Paleontology, both at Yale and in the wider world, has come a long way since then, but sadly our displays have failed to keep up.

Fortunately, help is at hand. The cog wheels of a great university move slowly, especially in a time of recession, but we were recently told that Yale was prepared to make funding available to help us plan how we might go about reimagining the Great Hall and the adjacent fossil mammal gallery for the 21st Century.

Money to plan a new display is obviously not the same as money for a new display, but nonetheless it’s an important first step and we’re all very excited. There are some significant challenges, not the least of which is how we work with two very large “elephants” in the room, namely the magnificent Zallinger Murals “The Age of Reptiles” and “The Age of Mammals” that are fixtures in the galleries. Anything that we do has to incorporate these murals, which are great art, but woefully outdated scientifically.

We also have to work out how to display more specimens, notably from the Peabody’s matchless collections of fossil invertebrates and plants, together with specimens from Princeton’s vertebrate paleontology collections that were acquired by Yale in the mid 1980s but which have never been displayed, all within the existing, limited gallery space. Plus, we also want to give Peabody’s galleries a new slant – a perspective on evolution and earth history that hasn’t been tried before.

One of the nice things about writing a blog is that I will be able to share some of this process with you over the next year. It’s going to absorb a lot of my time, but fear not; if it looks like it’s displacing my usual high-quality posts – e.g. those disparaging cryptozoologists and pouring scorn on feckless curatorial staff and faculty – I’ll spin it off as a new blog. And make some other guy write it.

PS: I give you advance warning that this is going to be a lousy month for updates, what with last week’s SPNHC meeting and two weeks’ vacation in the UK coming up, but I will do my best.

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