Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shape up? Burns misses the Peabody's pulse

This past Thursday a Yale undergraduate named Thomas Burns wrote an op-ed in the Yale Daily News titled "The Peabody needs to shape up".

I wrote and submitted a response piece over the weekend, but the YDN wrote back saying they had already received multiple replies! Which just goes to show, contrary to Burns's allegations, the great impact that the Peabody has made in so many lives. They ended up publishing Dakota McCoy's piece, "In praise of the Peabody". It's a great piece, and well written. Definitely go read it.

Here is what I had to say in reply to Burns:

The Peabody Museum has been a second home for me for the past six years. As an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major, I came to know it first as a student. I learned hands-on from its collections in my coursework, and in my senior year these collections provided just the material I needed for my research on species diversity in a group of freshwater fishes native to Tennessee. I was also lucky to work as a student assistant in the Vertebrate Zoology Division for two years, and after graduation, even luckier to work as a full-time museum assistant for another two years.

Reading Thomas Burns’s article brought a mix of emotions. I was heartened that Burns recognizes the Peabody as “one of the most distinguishing aspects of Yale’s science program”, excited at his appreciation of the “tireless” efforts of Yale scientists in collecting specimens for research, and happy that he values the Peabody as a “physical encyclopedia of the natural world.” Clearly, Burns cares deeply about the museum and believes ardently in its mission. He testifies that the Peabody is a learning space worthy of more of the University’s resources. I could not agree more.

Yet his argument that the Peabody is an institution that does not serve the Yale community because of a “profit-hungry attitude” is tragically misguided and simply incorrect. My job as museum assistant was to re-curate the Vertebrate Zoology fluid specimens. Much of this work was tedious, but each day was inspiring—not because of the dead specimens I encountered daily, but because the museum is alive. From its students to its staff to its curators, it is alive with curiosity of the natural world, and it is alive with passion for sharing this curiosity.

Do students and faculty “use the museum as a second classroom”? Six courses from my own education relied upon the museum collections: Biology of Terrestrial Arthropods, Introductory Geoscience, Stratigraphy, Laboratory for Evolutionary Biology, Introduction to Physical Anthropology, and History of Life. A few more off the top of my head include Invertebrates, Vertebrate Paleontology, Ornithology and Ichthyology. Very useful in my daily tasks as museum assistant was a cart that I used to move specimens where they needed to go. The Ichthyology class in fact used specimens for teaching so much that, to my dismay, I found myself all too often deprived of my dear cart.

Does the museum “provide intellectual stimuli to the student body”? The Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department offers a seminar titled “The Natural History Collections of the Peabody Museum.” A good friend of mine took this course her freshman year, and via a class project she began doing research with Professor and Peabody curator Richard Prum. She continued this research through her college career and their collaboration resulted in the development of a new software program that has helped ornithologists better understand bird vision. Such opportunities are not reserved solely for biology majors. Just last semester we had an art major come spend a good deal of time with us as she did drawing studies of specimens. A history of science student researched with us last semester as well. And I am speaking for only one out of the Peabody’s twelve divisions.

The Peabody’s educational mission extends well beyond the Yale community. Each year, local high school students who are training for Connecticut’s Envirothon competition come to Vertebrate Zoology and use our specimens to prepare, with a guide that one of our collection managers wrote. Last year, this team placed fourth in the national competition. Each fall, nearly every Peabody staff member participates in an annual Bioblitz held in the town of Stratford. This 24 hour effort aims to identify as many organisms as possible, serving to monitor biodiversity in the area over time. The public is invited to join us, and we teach them how to go about identifying the organisms.

Do the museum collections provide “easy access” to the student body and the general public? The Vertebrate Zoology Division allows so many visitors into our laboratory and collection space that I often felt like a stranger myself. Although I tried my hardest, I honestly could not keep track of all the new faces using the collections each day. These visitors ranged from researchers from other institutions to local nature enthusiasts to artists and of course to students. Beyond individual visitors, our collection managers provide generous tours to groups of all sorts, often working late in order to do so.

Is the auditorium used “almost exclusively for parties”? Nothing could be further from the truth. I have attended countless lectures there by dynamic science speakers from within the Peabody and from outside. One of my most vivid auditorium memories is of a film screening of what was then a new documentary, “Hummingbirds, Magic in the Air.” I arrived ten minutes early and there were so many people there that I still had to stand. The film featured findings by Yale researchers, and the panel discussion that followed with these very researchers was so engaging and lively that it truly did feel like there was magic in the air. Although I don’t think it was quite as magical, I once gave a talk in the auditorium myself along with two graduate students from the Geology Department: we shared how we use Peabody specimens in our research with a group of biology undergraduates from Eastern Connecticut State University. 

It saddens me that Burns has so grievously misunderstood the Peabody’s spirit. Everyone I know at the Peabody is eager to share the specimens with anyone who wishes to learn from them. I’ll never forget one of my first days working as a student at the Peabody: although he had research to do, grants to write, and classes to teach, ichthyology curator Tom Near sat down with me and taught me how to sort and identify fish specimens. He started with minnows, a notoriously difficult group, and spent hours showing me the minute differences among species (note to budding ichthyologists: minnows suck…).  If you wish to access the collections, please, just contact a Peabody staff member. Any staff member. Any curator. They will happily point you in the right direction.

In closing, I want to applaud Burns for his vision. He is right: the Peabody’s collections are amazing, and they are vast. We have over twelve million specimens and we are adding to the collections every day. It would be ideal if each one of these specimens could be on permanent display. It would really be a marvel, wouldn’t it? However, this would require expansive, almost limitless space, and it would require extensive security measures in order to keep the specimens safe and secure for future research. No major natural history museum is able to keep all of its specimens on public display.

Yet the Peabody still works towards this goal in creative ways. Many divisions are in the process of digitizing their collections: they are photographing each specimen and inputting all specimen data into Yale’s public database. The Peabody has in fact been a pioneer among museums in harnessing the latest technologies for collection digitization. Further, a number of us blog about the specimens we encounter behind the scenes, precisely because we know there are people like Burns who desire to experience the collections beyond what is on exhibit. I am still blogging about the Vertebrate Zoology specimens, even though I no longer work at the museum. And we are in the midst of creating a collective blog space at the Peabody website that will enable anyone at the Peabody—student, staff, or curator—to easily share about the specimens they are working with, the research they are conducting, and the discoveries they are making. This blog is set to be titled “Twelve million specimens …and counting.” Burns, I hope you will become a regular reader when we launch it.


  1. Jordan,

    Since you are a Religious Studies co-major, I invite you to read my post on the Peabody:


    Paul Keane

    M.Div. '80