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The Peabody: A Donation Brings Preservation and Progress

A life-size model of a giant squid suspended from the ceiling; a mounted skeleton of a Brontosaurus; a 110 foot fresco secco mural depicting the evolutionary history of the earth. These are just some of the treasures one can discover at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, a Gothic style dark brown building on New Haven’s Whitney Avenue. Founded in 1866 with a gift of $150,000, the Peabody houses approximately 13 million specimens, ranging from ancient Egyptian artifacts to thousands of vertebrate fossil specimens.

Now, the Peabody has just been gifted with another landmark donation—this time, of $160 million. The donation is one of the most generous ever made to Yale, and it is the largest known gift ever made to a natural history museum in the United States. Edward Bass, a Yale alumnus, businessman, and philanthropist, made the donation to the Peabody this August in the spirit of maintaining institutional history and values.

In an interview with The New York Times, Bass, who first visited the museum when he was six years old, said, “I see institutions as having the power to transmit and perpetuate a set of fundamental values, and to do so generation to generation.” Bass explained that the primary aim of his donation is to help preserve and properly maintain the museum’s vast collections. He hopes that modern technological advancements can help scientists glean new insights from the specimens.

The museum attracts a variety of public visitors every day with its collections that are fascinating to scientists and schoolchildren alike. David Skelly, Director of the Peabody Museum and Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale, recalls visiting the museum as a child and loving the dinosaur hall. Similarly, Stephen Stearns, Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology looks fondly upon the museum as a place where he takes his grandchildren, who enjoy the hands-on experience with live animals in the Discovery Room (think: poison dart frogs, walking sticks, leaf-cutter ants, and even tarantulas).

Beside children playing with critters, one will find Yale students at the Peabody, for whom the museum is a classroom and a research laboratory. The evolution and ecology portion of the introductory biology sequence requires students to come to the museum’s study gallery. More specialized courses like Skelly’s first-year seminar, “Collections of the Peabody Museum,” gives first-years access to the museum’s collections so they can write a research project in collaboration with faculty and staff associated with the museum.

Clay Tamburri, a first-year student in Skelly’s seminar, has always been interested in evolutionary biology, and is excited about the opportunity to explore the museum through the course. Explaining his interaction with the Peabody thus far, he said, “We’ve gone into the collections and some of the departments to learn more about the museum’s history.”

Given the importance of the Peabody Museum to the science community at Yale, Bass’s donation promises to be transformative to both the museum and the university’s STEM program. According to Director Skelly, the money will first go to necessary infrastructure remodeling; the 90 year-old building will be brought up to twenty-first century standards, and the museum will expand so that the galleries are around 50% bigger. An additional five classrooms will be added in the collections, which will be made to support museum-based teaching for any department, from evolutionary biology to history. Director Skelly emphasized the importance of using the collections for further teaching and research, and for encouraging undergraduates to get more involved with the museum. A digital teaching space called the “Peabody Studio” will be instituted for this purpose.

This influx of money into the Peabody Museum reflects a larger trend at Yale: an enhanced commitment to, and investment in, STEM education. Stearns explains, “Yale has long been a top university in the humanities and law, and [President Salovey] would like to make Yale as attractive to scientists as places like MIT, Harvard, and Caltech.” Recently, Yale conducted STEM forums for high school juniors and seniors in California, New York, and Chicago, where admissions representatives and STEM faculty showcased their research and undergraduate programs. Associate Director of Admissions Mark Dunn also remarked that the number of applicants expressing an interest in STEM as a first-choice major has increased from roughly 40% of the pool to more than 50% over the past decade.

In 2016, President Peter Salovey announced Yale’s plan to invest in the sciences and engineering, creating a University Science Strategy Committee (USSC) to outline these new plans. Convening regularly from February 2017 to May 2018, the USSC discussed ideas for priority investments, which include integrative data science and environmental and evolutionary sciences. The USSC’s final report also described changes in STEM organizational structures, such as improving support for clinical trials research and large grant submissions.

Of the top five priorities outlined in the report, Director Skelly explained, the one that most closely links the Peabody Museum to STEM initiatives is data science. The USSC describes this initiative as an attempt to harness and utilize the large amounts of data in the world.

Director Skelly says that the Peabody is in a unique position to take part in this initiative. “There is a great deal of expertise in the museum around large scale data sets and how to organize them, make them available to people, analyze them, and gain powerful insights from them.”

He said that the Peabody should be a part of the conversations surrounding data science at Yale, and how Yale’s wealth of knowledge, in digital and live form, can be made available to those far beyond the university.

In the future, the Peabody and STEM at Yale, evolving simultaneously, will benefit from each other’s progress. Both Professor Stearns and Director Skelly agree that current first-years will likely see an improvement in their STEM education by their senior year, as resources are enhanced, new professors are recruited, and more interdisciplinary science work is pursued. Director Skelly concluded, “…The actions of the past administration and the current one are really going to bring us up to par and beyond. That is extremely important for being one of the top universities in the world.”