Robert Miller: Three years without triceratops will be worth the wait
A long time ago, in human years, my parents took me to Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven. In the six decades since, my old friends — brontosaurus, stegosaurus, and triceratops — have been standing up for me, still awesome, their skeletons as unshakable as their mystery.
I went back there last week for the closing of the Great Hall of Dinosaurs. For the next three years the entire exhibit will be carefully disassembled, then re-installed in the Peabody’s $200 million renovation and expansion. The entire museum will close this summer. It’s reopening in 2023 will mark the most fundamental change in the museum in nearly a century.
I was not alone. When word of the Hall’s closing got out, people started making their fossil pilgrimages, snapping selfies next to dem bones.
“We’ve been packed,” said Christopher Norris, who for 10 years was in charge of the hall as senior manager for vertebrate paleontology, and is now the museum’s director of public programming.
For some, it was like old home week.
“I grew up near here,” said Rebecca Gelernter of New Haven. “It’s going to be the end of the era.”
“We’re going to miss it terribly,” said one woman, who did not give her name because she was playing hooky from work to visit.
For others, the last day was a first time.
“I don’t thing I’ve ever been here,” said Kevin Blagys of Bridgeport. “But it seems familiar.”
Which is right. Since 1926, when the Great Hall opened, it’s been a place of science and research, but also a place to imagine. If dinosaurs are familiar to us, thank the Peabody.
In doing so, the Peabody is a place to learn how humans came to understand giant sea turtles and marine lizards and T-Rex.
To begin with, there was Othneil C. Marsh, who in 1866 became the first professor of paleontology at Yale, and at any American university. With that appointment in hand, March’s uncle, the banker and philanthropist George Peabody, gave Yale $150,000 to found the museum.
“There were many fortunate things about O.C. Marsh, but one of the most fortunate things was that he had a rich uncle,” Norris said.
Marsh was one of the central figures in the Bone Wars in the 19th and 20th century. Thanks to the transcontinental railway, Norris said, Marsh could hire crews of fossil hunters to dig for him out West, then ship their findings back to Yale. He ended up discovering 80 new species of dinosaurs.
Norris said that even today, that collection forms the base of Yale’s paleontological research. If you find what you think is a brontosaurus, he said, you have to come to the Peabody and study its brontosaurus to make sure you’re right.
The Peabody’s second great leap forward came about not through fossil-finding, but through a painting — Rudolph Zallinger’s acclaimed mural “The Age of Reptile,” which spans a 110-foot by 16-foot space on the wall above the fossil displays.
After Zallinger finished the mural in 1947, it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949. Life Magazine then ran photos of it so that people around the world saw his images and re-imagined dinosaurs as actual creatures, moving through the landscape. People became paleontologists because of it, Norris said, and Godzilla was modeled after to Zallinger’s T-Rex.
The mural will be protected and be back on display for the museum’s reopening. It is not going anywhere.
“Absolutely not,” Norris said.
The third revolution came through the work of John Ostrom, professor and curator of paleontology at Yale from 1970 to 1993 and an emeritus professor until 2001.
Beginning in the late 1960s, Ostrom was the first paleontologist to theorize that dinosaurs could be fast-moving and warm-blooded. He was also the first scientist to expound the idea that modern birds are dinosaur descendants.
Building on Ostrom’s initial work, paleontologists now think T-Rex had feathers and Brontosaurus — rather than being a lummox — was thinner and more agile.
“It was the beginning of the dinosaur renaissance,” Norris said.
That renaissance will guide the new displays in the Great Hall. The bones will be back, but presented in ways that reflect the ever-growing body of dinosaur research. Three years without a triceratops might seem a long wait. But it will be worth it.
“It’s not going away,” Norris said of the Great Hall. “It’s not the end. It’s the beginning of a new Peabody.”
Contact Robert Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org