The dinosaur and fossil mammal halls at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (YPM) closed on January 1st of this year. In the last post, I covered some of the exhibition’s history, with a focus on the mounted dinosaur skeletons that won’t be returning when the halls reopen in 2023. This time, I want to explore what the new paleontology exhibits might be like. To be clear, I don’t have any privileged information about the YPM renovation. I only have my own insight from working on exhibits at other museums, and my immoderate interest in historic fossil displays (see the rest of this website). Fortunately, YPM staff have been very generous with news about the project, and there is even a dedicated website with details about the renovation. Let’s see how much we can piece together.
As I touched on in the previous post, this renovation has been a long time in coming. Few significant changes had been made to the paleontology halls since the 1950s, and these spaces are in many ways time capsules from another era—both in terms of paleontological science and exhibit design. Serious conversations about redeveloping the dinosaur and mammal halls were underway by 2010. During this process, the team noted the disjointed nature of the existing exhibits, which had been installed on an ad hoc basis. For instance, a visitor moving along the west side of the dinosaur hall would encounter modern crocodilians, Triassic trees, and a Cretaceous mosasaur, before passing into the fossil mammal hall and encountering a Quaternary mastodon. These random jumps back and forth through time undoubtably made it difficult for visitors to make much sense of what they were seeing, beyond a menagerie of old dead things.
Seeking to unify the fossils on display within a single, cohesive story, the team proposed a variation on the traditional “walk through time.” Rather than dividing the space into segmented galleries based on the formal divisions of geologic time, the emphasis would be on broad-scale environmental changes. This presentation would synergize with the existing Rudolph Zallinger murals. The 110-foot The Age of Reptiles (completed in 1947) and the 60-foot The Age of Mammals (completed in 1967) are epically-scaled frescos that show the evolution of life over time without hard boundaries. Instead, flora and landscapes from different time periods blend seamlessly into one another. In the same way, the proposed exhibition would present its narrative holistically, encouraging visitors to track the underlying environmental trends that precipitated evolutionary changes. As I discussed some time ago, this is not dissimilar from the approach taken for Deep Time.
These discussions must have been the basis for the set of concept images released alongside the launch of a new fundraising effort in 2013 (why they needed to fundraise when Yale has a $30 billion endowment is beyond me—I promise this will be my only snarky aside about that). Architectural firm Studio Joseph envisioned wide-open and well-lit spaces, in which the grey carpet and grid-patterned walls were replaced by bright earth tones accentuated by ash wood panels. A mezzanine on the west side of the dinosaur hall would have allowed visitors to view The Age of Reptiles directly, rather than from the floor. A long, continuous case directly beneath the mural would contain fossil specimens that corresponded with the scene above.
In the center of the hall, remounted Brontosaurus and Stegosaurus skeletons were to be joined by a brand-new Allosaurus, shown attacking the Stegosaurus. In the concept images, the dinosaur skeletons are directly on the floor, rather than on platforms. Barely-visible glass barriers prevent visitors from getting too close to the specimens. In the background, the Beecher Edmontosaurus is in the same position it’s held on the north wall since 1925. A mosasaur attacking an Archelon appears to be suspended from the ceiling in the northwest corner.
The 2013 mammal hall concept follows the same aesthetic principles as the dinosaur hall. The space-hogging floor-to-ceiling cases are gone, replaced by the same circular glass barriers shown around the dinosaur mounts. Whereas the old hall was loosely organized around a mid-century understanding of evolutionary relationships, this new version would be strictly chronological. The old fundraising page lists a Megacerops display, a Moropus display, and a mastodon display, and indeed, those skeletons appear to anchor the three major areas portrayed in the concept image. One can imagine these early, middle, and late Cenozoic tableaus illustrating the climactic shift from warm and wet to cool and dry. Oddly, the arrangement shown here runs in the opposite direction of The Age of Mammals mural, in which the ice age is on the west side of the hall.
But all that was seven years ago. Near as I can tell, everything changed when Yale alumnus Peter Bass made a $160 million donation, apparently the largest single gift ever made to an American natural history museum. YPM also changed directors—in 2014, freshwater ecologist David Skelly took over the position from geologist Derek Briggs. The renovation is no longer limited to the two paleontology halls, but will encompass the entire museum—and more. Over the next four years, the YPM and surrounding area will gain a north courtyard and new museum entrance, a dedicated entrance and gathering area for school groups, a multi-story lobby connecting YPM to the academic building next door, new collections and research facilities, new classrooms, 50% more exhibit space, and a 500-seat lecture hall named for O.C. Marsh.
Centerbrook Architects and Planners—a company already responsible for twelve other projects on the Yale campus—was hired to continue the design process. Centerbrook’s renders (and a video flythrough) are available on the Peabody Evolved website. At this stage, it’s difficult to tell which parts of these renders represent real plans and which parts are placeholder. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll be taking the renders at face value, but will note when something might be merely suggestive of a to-be-determined element.
It’s clear that after the renovation, fossil displays will range far beyond the dinosaur and mammal halls. Some of these are already complete: in August 2019, a crew from Research Casting International moved a Triceratops skull and a relief-mounted Pteranodon from their traditional home in the dinosaur hall to the lobby of the new Marsh lecture hall (part of the recently-completed Yale Science Building to the north of the museum). Meanwhile, the Centerbrook plans shows a mosasaur to the left of the new north entrance to YPM. It’s the approximate size and shape of the Platecarpus skeleton in the old dinosaur hall, so perhaps that fossil will be relocated, as well.
At the heart of the renovated museum will be the central gallery, a brand-new structure filling in an empty space between the YPM and the Environmental Science Center to the east. It will run parallel to the dinosaur hall, sharing a wall on the existing gallery’s west side. Although the overall design is quite modern, the scale and color palette of this new 4-story space is meant to complement the French Gothic revival architecture of the original museum building. Lit by a skylight and filled with comfortable seating, the designers hope that the central gallery will be a space for students and museum visitors to relax and co-mingle, better integrating the museum into the campus community.
Flying high over people’s heads will be battling Archelon and Tylosaurus skeletons. You’ll remember that this scene was originally envisioned for the dinosaur hall. Relocating these skeletons to the central gallery gives them far more room to spread out. The Archelon in question is the holotype (YPM 3000), which was collected in 1885 in South Dakota. Measuring 15 feet across, this Cretaceous sea turtle has been on display since the turn of the 20th century. Given that it will be suspended an inaccessible 30 feet in the air, this new version of Archelon will almost certainly be a cast (Update: In fact, the real Archelon will be remounted). The Tylosaurus is reportedly a specimen from the YPM collection that has never been displayed before.
That brings us to Centerbrook’s revised take on the dinosaur hall. Several elements of the Studio Joseph design are still in evidence: the remounted Brontosaurus is at the center of the gallery, the Edmontosaurus remains on the north wall, and the specimen cases below the Zallinger mural are arranged in sync with the artwork above. Nevertheless, many changes have clearly been made. The ash wood panels are gone, and the walls are now austere white. The mezzanine is out, along with the battling Stegosaurus and Allosaurus. The Archelon and Tylosaurus are missing, of course, but we know that they’re in the central gallery. I imagine that these cuts have less to do with money than with real estate: once designers started laying out the proposed elements in 3-D space, it became clear that there was no way everything would fit.
I see five major sections in this version of the dinosaur hall. First is the curved wall, which faces visitors when they enter the exhibit from the south, or from the central gallery. The render shows ammonites on the south side of this wall, but these might be placeholder images. I expect this area to be an introduction to the exhibition and its organization.
On the opposite side of the curved wall and hidden from immediate view is Stegosaurus (YPM 1853), a companion to YPM’s famous Brontosaurus (YPM 1980). We can call this the Jurassic dinosaurs section, which occupies most of the floor space. Both dinosaurs were recovered around 1879 by William Reed’s field crew at Como Bluff, Wyoming, and were subsequently described by Marsh. Richard Lull (who called it “the most grotesque reptile the world ever saw”) oversaw the construction of the Stegosaurus mount in 1910. The great hall was specifically designed to fit the Brontosaurus, which was completed in 1931. Both of these historically-significant specimens will be restored and remounted for the new exhibition. Brontosaurus is afforded a large platform with built-in seating. The designers have included lots of space for visitors around this star attraction, allowing for plenty of photo opportunities. It’s disappointing that Stegosaurus is no longer fighting Allosaurus (this hall could use a large theropod or two), but it’s not like we can’t see similar scenes at other museums.
A row of cases under The Age of Reptiles appears to be arranged chronologically, with fossil specimens corresponding with the mural overhead. On the south end of the east wall, I see YPM’s complete Limnoscelis and the fin-backed Edaphosaurus. In the old hall, Edaphosaurus was mounted in relief, but this render shows a three-dimensional mount. I’m assuming the wire-frame theropod shown under the Cretaceous portion of the mural represents a Deinonychus mount. Including Deinonychus is a must, of course, since John Ostrom did his groundbreaking work demonstrating the theropod origin of birds at YPM. There is a smaller row of a cases on the west wall, and the only specimen I can make out appears to be YPM’s swimming Hesperornis mount. Perhaps this section is about the evolution of marine life, while the displays under the mural are about terrestrial life.
Finally, the relief-mounted Edmontosaurus anchors the Cretaceous dinosaurs section at the north end of the hall. Built in 1901, this is the oldest surviving dinosaur mount in North America. Contrary to the common narrative that all early 20th century paleontologists saw dinosaurs as cumbersome tail-draggers, this mount is downright sprightly, and could be mistaken for a reconstruction from the last 20 years. As such, it’s fitting that Edmontosaurus should remain in its original form. Since the Edmontosaurus was installed in the great hall in 1925, the space in front of it was gradually filled with a myriad of dinosaur skeletons, skulls, and models. In the new exhibition, this will be simplified to feature the skulls of three Edmontosaurus contemporaries: Triceratops, Torosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus.
Although no new images of the mammal hall have been shared yet, there is a telling change visible in the dinosaur hall renders. Currently, the doorway between the two fossil halls is on the west side of the north wall, but the new plans show it moved to the east side (there used to be a door there, but it’s been buried behind exhibit cases for decades). Relocating that door means visitors will enter the mammal hall in the center, and have the choice to move to the left or to the right. Presently the only other entrance to this space is from the human evolution gallery to the east, but perhaps once the central gallery is built the emergency exit to the left can become a regular passageway. What all this means for the content is anyone’s guess. On option would be to place the mounts on a central island—then visitors could circle counterclockwise and generally follow the Zallinger mural (which runs east to west) through time.
One thing these images tell us nothing about is media and interactivity—important parts of many contemporary exhibitions. Speculating wildly for a moment, I think it would be incredible if YPM used projection mapping or similar technology to create a media presentation directly on The Age of Reptiles. I’m imagining something vaguely like a planetarium show, with either pre-recorded or live narration. The show could illustrate how the mural was created, projecting an animated Zallinger on his ladder, looking tiny against the massive canvas. It could also portray the animals in motion, or provide us glimpses of modern reconstructions of the more outdated creatures. A show like this might draw more visitors to pay attention to the mural and appreciate its historical significance.
Research Casting International—the leading company specializing in preparing and mounting fossil skeletons—started work at YPM on January 20th. The crew has already dismantled several of the dinosaur skeletons, which will travel to their workshop outside Toronto for restoration, and in some cases, remounting. After that, we have a three year wait until the new YPM opens. I guess we’ll see then how many of my predictions here hold true.