Yale Peabody Reopens 50% Bigger and Free to All

The main hall of the renovated Yale Peabody museum (CT Examiner)


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NEW HAVEN — The Brontosaurus was lighter than previously thought and used its long neck to eat plants from the ground, not from trees. This is something paleontologists had known for years, but any visitor to the Yale Peabody Museum now will be able to see it for themselves.

One of the biggest changes during the museum’s four-year renovation was the remounting of half-a-dozen dinosaur and mammal fossils on display to reflect research developments of recent decades, which changed the way prehistoric life is understood. The exhibition space was also expanded by half and new educational and research facilities were built. On reopening, the museum will be free to all visitors, joining the university’s other free admission museums, the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art.  

“When we closed, we were the only Yale museum that charged. And we are arguably the museum that is most closely connected to the community in New Haven and beyond,” said David Skelly, director of the Yale Peabody Museum. “It was very important to get that income we built into this project right from the beginning, creating an endowment and then finding the funding for it, to replace that income so that when we reopened, we could become free to the public.”

(CT Examiner)

The Yale Peabody Museum remodel was the first comprehensive remodel in nine decades. It increased the number of items on display from 2,000 to about 2,500, out of a total of 14 million in the museum’s collection. The building expanded on a neighboring vacant lot, adding eight classrooms for academic research and new facilities for elementary and high school students. The 150-year-old museum is devoted to natural history and anthropology. Known primarily for its collection of prehistoric fossils, it also features anthropological exhibits, such as one related to Mesoamerican cultures.

Skelly said he could not comment on the total cost of the remodeling project, but said it began with an initial $160 million gift followed by further fundraising. The remodeling took longer than expected, he admitted, given the pandemic, but he said he is proud to have been able to complete it.

Tuesday was a “soft opening,” according to Skelly, as it only covered the first and second floors. Part of the third floor will open on April 17th, although there will be two pending galleries that Skelly hopes to open during the summer. These will include a temporary exhibit on the human brain, according to the director. 

The new hall at the renovated Yale Peabody Museum (CT Examiner)

Minutes before the reopening, Carmelo Hernández arrived at the Peabody Museum’s door with a stuffed Stegosaurus. Hernandez is 27 years old, a resident of New Haven, who worked for a time as a travel educator at the Yale Peabody Museum. Tuesday morning he arrived accompanied by his mother, Marlisa Rodríguez.

“I have been coming here myself since I was young, with my father and returning with my son,” said Rodríguez. “We have been waiting for it to open for five years in this city. It is a staple in the neighborhood and I am excited to see what they have done to it.”

For Skelly, one of the most important changes was the museum’s storytelling.

(CT Examiner)

“When museums like this first opened in the late 1800s, it was okay to have a curator being the voice of God and saying: this is the way it is. That is not the world we live in anymore,” Kelly said. “There are different perspectives. Throughout the galleries, you will find signs that were written by people who aren’t curators and who are giving you their own interpretation. Those contradictions are just part of the world we live in.”

For Alison Campbell, 25, a temporary employee at a Yale hospital, the reopened Peabody Museum is the most entertaining of Yale’s museums. Originally from Utah, Campbell said the more visual, child-friendly storytelling excited her, even though she had no prior knowledge of paleontology or archaeology.

Gary Cohen, 77, returned Tuesday to the museum he has visited since he was a child. When he learned of the reopening, he reserved tickets as quickly as he could. Cohen celebrated the dinosaur remounting as a way for the museum to teach the community.

“They learned, so we learned,” said Cohen. “We’ve always been excited about coming. It’s just an amazing place.”

(CT Examiner)

In The Great Hall of Dinosaurs, the mural “The Age of Reptiles,” painted by Rudolph F. Zallinger in 1947 reflects the old idea of how dinosaurs lived. Until the museum’s closure in 2019, it matched the fossils displayed in the room. Now the difference is evident. All the murals in the museum were restored but did not undergo any alterations. Museum management says it is working on the idea of painting an additional mural incorporating the new learnings to be placed in the main hall, in front of the old one.

When the dinosaurs were first mounted, that arrangement showed the latest knowledge on the subject that was available in the 1940s, said Chris Norris, paleontologist and director of public programs at the museum. Since then, the field has evolved, as reflected by the Brontosaurus that takes center stage in The Great Hall of Dinosaurs.  

“In the mural, it is in the water because they thought it was so heavy that it couldn’t move if it didn’t have its weight supported by water. Now we know the animal is much lighter than that,” Norris said. “We also know that the neck wasn’t sticking out like it was in the picture. It was kind of sticking out at the front. And so instead of feeding on things that were high up in the trees, it was using that long neck to feed on things lower down and just move its head a long distance without having to move its body much.”

Carmelo Hernández and Marlisa Rodríguez (CT Examiner)

An hour after entering, Carmelo Hernández and his mother walked into The Great Hall of Dinosaurs. He couldn’t hide his smile and hurried to walk right to the Stegosaurus. He grabbed his cell phone and snapped a photo of the stuffed animal and the dinosaur on display. However excited, he said the changes didn’t entirely surprise them.

“I kept up with that stuff on a regular basis and for years before the museum closed and we renovated, I was always wondering is like, I wonder when they’re going to renovate?” said Hernandez. 

Another thing that both Hernández and Rodríguez celebrated was that thanks to the new layout of the museum, it is now possible to get closer to some pieces and to see from different angles the ones that are not against the wall.  

“There are some differences,” said Rodríguez. “But it still feels like home.