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Building for the Future: Care and Conservation of the Peabody Collections

In 1991, with the assistance of Garrison-Lull, LLC, the Yale Peabody Museum conducted a general conservation assessment survey by recording the environmental conditions in each of the 60 storerooms and 5 buildings (Kline Geology Laboratory, Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory, Osborn Memorial Laboratory, 175 Whitney Avenue and the Museum itself) that then housed the collections from its 11 divisions. The general storage situation of each collection—mainly unsatisfactory, with some under desperate conditions—was documented, and the causes of observed deterioration were analyzed.

The results of this assessment formed the basis for the Peabody Museum’s long-range Conservation Plan, which addresses both the need for environmental improvements and for collections-based projects. Reviewed and updated regularly, the Conservation Plan was implemented with the assistance of 9 major conservation grants, including support from the National Science Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

  As a result of this long-range plan, a $35 million environmental sciences facility was built on Science Hill adjacent to the Peabody Museum of Natural History on the former site of the Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory. The Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center (ESC) brings together faculty from different University departments and schools who share an interest in understanding the earth’s environmental history and future. Opened in 2001, the ESC houses research in the earth and environmental sciences, and provides expanded space for collections of the adjoining Peabody Museum of Natural History. At the interface between the collections at the building’s core and the investigators and students surrounding it are the Peabody divisions’ collections managers, whose job it is to facilitate access to the collections while organizing and protecting these materials for future generations.

The 3-story, 98,000-square-foot brick and limestone-trim structure is a modern rendition of the Collegiate Gothic style, designed to complement the French Gothic architecture of the current Peabody Museum building, dedicated in 1925. The design architect for the project is David M. Schwarz of David M. Schwarz Architectural Services, Inc., Washington, D.C., and the architect of record is GSI Architects, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio. A corner entry tower rises 6 stories and faces Sachem Street. The building connects on all main floors to the Yale Peabody Museum, and on the second floor with the C. Mahon Kline Geology Laboratory. It forms an interior courtyard with the Yale Peabody Museum. The ESC replaces the Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory, which was razed in 1999.

Construction of the building was made possible by a gift from the Class of 1954, for whom it was named, and from Edward P. Bass, Yale College ’68), who also gave funds to establish the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies (created in 1991), also housed in the ESC.

In addition to the Yale Peabody Museum and YIBS, the new facility also serves the Yale departments of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Geology & Geophysics, and Anthropology, and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

The demolition of the Bingham Lab—itself dedicated 40 years ago to house the Museum’s marine and ornithology collections and research facilities—facilitated and accelerated the move and reorganization of a major portion of the Peabody’s 11 million objects and specimens. Among these are the fossils of the divisions of Invertebrate Paleontology and Paleobotany; the Yale Herbarium specimens of the Division of Botany; the pinned insects of the Entomology Division; the wet and dry specimens of the Division of Invertebrate Zoology; and the Division of Vertebrate Zoology’s wet collections and osteology collections of birds, fish and mammals. Coordinated and supervised by the Peabody’s collections managers and a small army of volunteers and professional movers, this massive effort was completed on schedule in the summer of 1999.

With the construction of the ESC, the gradual but inexorable destruction of specimens due to the stress created by annual swings of heat and moisture, as well as the inevitable leaks of a building three-quarters of a century old, has been halted. Almost half of the ESC houses Peabody materials, assuring the integrity of those collections so that future generations may learn from them in the classroom, laboratory and exhibition hall.

Even so, many of our most distinguished collections—including O.C. Marsh’s vertebrate paleontology fossils and Hiram Bingham’s Machu Picchu artifacts—will have to remain elsewhere in inferior conditions due to the lack of space in the new building.

As stressed by then Peabody Museum Director Richard L. Burger at the May 12, 1999 groundbreaking ceremony for the new building, the value of the Yale Peabody Museum’s collections is not innate, but rather something to be extracted through continual study, components in a dynamic process, rather than passive resources. As Professor Burger stated that day, “We can predict with confidence that if the collections are merely left in storage, no matter how excellent the environmental conditions, absolutely nothing will be learned. It is this fundamental observation that justifies both the Peabody’s existence and the ESF’s creation.”

Architect of Record
GSI Architects, Inc.

Structural Engineer
Spiegel Zamecnik & Shah, Inc.

David M. Schwarz Architectural Services, Inc.

Mechanical/Electrical Engineer
Vanderweil Engineers

Construction Manager
Linbeck Construction Corporation

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