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Peabody Museum of Natural History

Yale University, New Haven, CT

screen print of peabody museum article

The Peabody Museum of Natural History is a relatively small museum, but the artifacts and exhibits are top quality. O.C. Marsh, one of the pioneer paleontologists who discovered many dinosaurs in the 19th century, worked for the Peabody, and his influence is everywhere.

The Hall of Native American cultures features sections arranged by geography, such as Northwest Coast, Sub-Arctic, Arctic, Southwest, Great Plains. Unfortunately they have no exhibits on Central or South American cultures (my personal favorites) on display at this time. Each section includes various items from the culture, such as jewelry, clothing, weapons, household goods, toys, ceremonial objects, art and more. Tucked behind the case with the full war bonnet in it is a story about how 0.C. Marsh befriended Red Cloud, an Oglala Sioux chief, while digging for dinosaurs in the Black Hills. Next to the story, a war bonnet, pipe and ceremonial bag which Red Cloud gave to Marsh, along with a beautiful quote from Red Cloud about Marsh, are displayed.

The Hall of Pacific Cultures includes items from Hawaii, Australia, New Guinea and other island cultures, including calved skulls taken in head-hunter raids and gorgeous Hawaiian featherwork.

The Fossil Fragments: Riddle of Human Origins section is a fascinating journey through human pre-history, including a huge repeating video slide show full of questions about evolution and prehistoric man. Two things really caught my attention. The first was a display (right in front of the slide show) with a Neanderthal brain case and behind it a reconstruction of a Neanderthal man's face, with bushy hair and beard. The lighting switches and the skull seems to fade in and out of the face. In the other section of the exhibit are the various types of prehistoric humans and pre-humans, with bronze skull replicas and a few partial skeletons (including the famous "Lucy"—the oldest pre-human ever found). An interactive exhibit on the differences between chimp, human and prehistoric skulls is fun to play with for adults and children alike, and near that is the second thing that really stuck in my mind. Its about facial reconstruction, and its a cast of the same skull used for the other reproduction. First is the plain skull, then the muscles molded on it and finally the face. But this face the sculptor left relatively hairless, and it looks like any guy you might pass on the street—very eerie.

The Hall of Mammalian Evolution is crowned by the Age of Mammals mural by Rudolph F. Zallinger. Most of the exhibits are skeletal and include a giant Irish Elk from the Ice Age, a dire wolf, a saber tooth "tiger," an enormous camel, and a mastodon. Next to the mastodon is a skeleton of a modern African elephant (a six month old baby) for comparison. The mastodon was discovered in New York and is one of the most complete skeletons ever found, missing only a few bones, and was sold by the land's owner for only $700.

The Great Hall is the centerpiece of the Peabody—the room where the dinosaurs are. Along one wall runs the famous, Pulitzer-prize winning mural "Age of Dinosaurs" (also painted by Zallinger) which for many years shaped the way people think about dinosaurs. (Books and posters of the "Age of Dinosaurs" and "Age of Mammals" are available in the Museum store.) One hundred ten feet long, the mural alone is worth the price of admission.

In front of the mural is the original dinosaur skeleton which O.C. Marsh discovered and named "Brontosaurus" (now known as Apatosaurus)—it is the only specimen which can still be called "Brontosaurus."

The Hall also contains skeletons of hadrosaurs (duck-bills), a Stegosaurus, a Triceratops and a variety of different Triceratops heads, several Deinonychus (raptors)—skeletons and a model—a huge 3-legged Archelon marine turtle, a baby Camarsaurus, a T-rex skull, marine crocodiles, and a Mosasaur. Fossil plants, fish, amphibians, birds and more round out the collection. And don't forget to look up on the other side of the room to see a Pteradodon, a duckbill, and more.

If you can, take the stairs between the first and second floors. On the first landing is an exhibit about the Torosaurus, including a very interesting interactive video about the making of the life-sized bronze Torosaurus statue outside the museum. This horned dinosaur, related to Triceratops, was discovered by Peabody paleontologists. On the second stair landing is a small meteorite exhibit. (There are no exhibits on the stair landings between the second and third floors.)

The second floor doesn't contain much—mostly mini-exhibits that are no less interesting for being small. Fossils found in Long Island Sound, ways to mount and preserve insect specimens, the anatomy of the tornado which struck locally in July 1989, a vortex machine, and the Discovery Room, which is a place for children to learn in a hands-on environment.

The Discovery Room includes rocks, fossils (including coprolite, or fossilized dung) and bones that can be touched. This room also has live animals in tanks—a bearded dragon, a milk snake, a rat snake, and a large rainforest tank full of poison dart frogs. There's even a mini-hallway of painted dinosaur prints to walk in. The amount of people in the room is limited so you might have to wait a few minutes to be allowed in—there's a bench outside the door, next to the Long Island Sound fossils.

The third floor is almost as large as the first floor. Outside the Hall of Minerals is the "Odorants" alcove (the elevator opens into it). This interesting exhibit is about natural perfumes (ambergris from sperm whales, musk from deer, castoreum from beavers, and civet from civet cats) and how they are extracted and used in the perfume industry. Each one has a sample you can smell and examples of products which use it.

The Hall of Minerals is mostly geared toward local specimens. There's a nice display of fluorescent minerals (always fun to look at them in "real" light and see the difference). There are small specimens from all over the state and where they were found, and a mural of all the different types of rock formations in Connecticut with photos and maps.

The auditorium opens off the Hall of Minerals. If it's open, you can go inside and see the big Olmec head (it's about five and a half feet tall) and a series of amazing paintings from Australia.

The Hall of Earth and Space has more meteorites and two globe exhibits. One interactive exhibit is about ocean currents. The large center globe dominating the exhibit shows all the superlatives of the world—tallest mountains, deepest holes, highest temperatures, least and greatest rainfall, longest rivers. Touching a button lights up an area of the globe—part of the fun is trying to find the tiny light on the giant globe. There is even a button for New Haven, labeled "you are here."

A small case contains two giant dragonfly models and a crawling many-legged bug and explains how when the oxygen content of the earth is higher, insects grow to enormous sizes—the models are life size. Another small exhibit contains a tulgurite, which is a lightning strike captured as a jagged glass tube in the sand.

The North American dioramas are incredible slices of life. Each has a wooden bench before it so you can sit and study these works of art. Preserved animals are posed with accurate plants against a curved painted background which melts almost seamlessly into the scene. Scenes include the Timberline, with big-horned sheep, and my favorite, a Tropical Rainforest with parrots and a jaguar. Others showcase Alaskan brown bears, bison, and musk ox. A polar bear sits alone, with no diorama around him, posed on an artificial ice floe.

The invasive plants exhibit is educational. I did not know that the common Norway Maple tree is an invasive species. Each plant is illustrated with a delicate watercolor and many have dried specimens as well.

The Birds of Connecticut area has specimens of all the types of birds which can be found here, including male, female, and juvenile when different. It’s a bird watchers paradise which includes a swan, a golden eagle, a bald eagle, a snowy owl, a vulture, and every common bird you can think of, including pigeons (Rock doves). Also in that section is a reconstructed skeleton and mount of a dodo, made from "chicken and peafowl" feathers since no skins or feathers of dodos survived, with text about how it went extinct.

The Southern New England dioramas in the next section include the large "Coastal Region" display, which according to the text of a nearby exhibit, is "one of the most remarkable achievements of diorama-craft anywhere." In the same area is the local Native American section, with a life-sized model, clothing, tools, maps and more.

Behind that is the arch to the small Egyptian section. A pre-dynastic mummy of a woman is displayed under glass. There's an x-ray of the traditional mummy, an unknown young man who was killed by a blow to the head, and that mummy is housed in a reproduction of the tomb of the Vizier Nespakashuty (though it is not Nespakashuty's mummy). The mummy and tomb are in the back, in a dark hallway that lights up when you enter it. The Egypt room really just gives you the barest taste of Egypt.

The Peabody Museum is more than worth its admission price of $7 for adults and $5 for children over 3. Plan to spend at least a couple of hours there; longer if your children are dinosaur-crazy. On weekends, there is plenty of free parking in the Yale lot next door. There is also metered parking on the nearby streets. There is no cafeteria within the museum but there are many good places to eat nearby in New Haven. Check the web site or call the recorded info-line to get current exhibit information. The Alien Earth exhibit will be running from September 30, 2006 to May 6, 2007 (it was still being assembled when I visited) and other exhibits may rotate.

(c) 2006. Some information may be out of date.


All material on this site is copyright (c) by Gevera Bert Piedmont except where noted. All rights reserved. Contact me for permission to republish. Information on this site is for entertainment purposes only. Enjoy! })i({

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