Growing up in Connecticut, David Skelly
fell in love with the Peabody Museum of Natural History
at a young age. Last week, Yale President Peter Salovey appointed Skelly
, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, as the museum’s next director. He will succeed Derek Briggs
, the G. Evelyn Hutchinson Professor of Geology and Geophysics, who has served in that post since 2008.
In an interview, Skelly explains why the Peabody thrilled him as a boy, its important role within Yale University and the city of New Haven, and how the Museum can continue to inspire generations of children.
Q: How old were you when you first visited the Peabody Museum?
DAVID SKELLY: I was young enough that I actually don’t remember the first time I visited. I know that by the time I was in middle school my mother was pretty much done with me asking if I could go there for my birthday.
Q: What was it about the Museum that pulled you in as a kid?
SKELLY: Like a lot of kids today, and then, dinosaurs had a pretty powerful hold over my imagination as a child. Just the idea that these animals, which seemed so otherworldly, used to live right around us blew me away — and it still does today. And walking into the Great Hall of the Peabody just made that real.
Q: Is it true that you had Rudolph Zallinger’s mural [The Age of the Reptiles] hanging on your bedroom wall?
SKELLY: Oh, yes. And not only that, I had a 6-foot tall Styrofoam tyrannosaurus skeleton in my room. Yes, I was really into it. And in many ways I still think dinosaur biology is incredibly cool.
But what got me going in a different direction was discovering what extinction meant, and the fact that the species that I was most interested in were no longer alive. I wasn’t going to be able to study Stegosaurus biology the same way I was going to be able to study fish and frogs and other things.
Q: You’ve actually been affiliated with the Museum for several years, correct?
SKELLY: Yes, three or four years after I came here, I was approached by then-Director of the Museum, Richard Burger, about becoming a curator [of vertebrate zoology]. I’m still not quite sure why he contacted me — I’m not necessarily an obvious person to be a curator. At the time I think it was a little bit radical to have an ecologist as a curator. Most curators in biology are oriented towards evolution and systematics more directly. And I certainly am interested in those aspects of biology, but that’s not in the foreground of what I do. But when he approached me, I didn’t hesitate at all. Because there are many reasons I went into academia and one of them was to be able to reach out beyond the academic sphere and help people appreciate science.
I think it’s critically important for there to be a dialogue between the academic world and the rest of the world. And museums are a major conduit for that communication. And they themselves are evolving to deal with a world that is quite a bit different than it was in 1866, when the Peabody was founded.
Q: How has the Museum changed since when you were growing up?
SKELLY: A lot of the changes may not be easy for the casual visitor to see. For example, the Museum has a fantastic after-school program, called the Evolutions
program, that’s college prep-oriented and helps high school students from under-represented schools get access to everything that Yale has to offer in the natural sciences. These are students who show some inclination toward science. And it works — the program has a fantastic track record. There was nothing like that going on when I was a kid.
Some things haven’t changed as much. If you teleported my 5-year-old self, from 1975, into the Great Hall in 2014, I would be very comfortable in there. It hasn’t changed very much, even though our understanding of the history of life has changed quite a bit. One of the things that the last few directors have been very focused on is modernizing our displays in the lead-up to the Museum’s 150th
anniversary, which is coming up in 2016. The way that we show the world about the history of life needs to catch up with our scientific understanding. So that will be a big part of the agenda for the next few years.
And think about it: Whether you’re talking about 1866, when the Museum opened, or the early 1970s, when I started going as a little kid, the competition from other sources of information is far more compelling today. We’re going to be up against some really dynamic and well-crafted online resources. How do you get people to go out to a museum? What brings them into the halls? What keeps them there? What sorts of things are we not doing that we should be doing to make it not seem like some Victorian throwback?
We need to be thinking about the next generation of kids, who are glued to screens from the time they can walk. What does “real” mean to them? What does a museum mean to them? And how do we reach them?
Q: Are there any other specific priorities?
SKELLY: Certainly. There was an article a couple of weeks ago in the Yale Daily News
about the relationship between the Peabody Museum and Yale students. And there are in fact a lot of students who come in contact with the collections and material from the Museum in their classes. But there’s much more we can do there. I’d like to see the staff at the Peabody and within Yale College and F&ES think more about how the Peabody can help support the type of teaching that they want to do.
Q: How will this new position affect your role at F&ES?
SKELLY: F&ES is still my home. I’m still going to advising master’s and Ph.D. students. I’m hoping that a stronger association with the Museum opens up some avenues for interaction. I’ve certainly started talking with Dean Crane about the opportunities we can develop through our obviously great working relationship. And there really are some great opportunities.
My own example is perhaps relevant. I’m doing conservation-oriented ecology and I’ve found the association with the Museum extremely helpful in the work I do. Often the work that we all do is place-based. It’s often structured geographically. And the way that we catalog, use, and analyze information is something that museums have been thinking about literally for centuries. And there are people in the museum world who are at the forefront of thinking about those issues. I’ve had an opportunity to interact with them and understand how museum collections have helped them be at the forefront of developing these approaches.
Q: You talked about how important the Peabody was for you as a youngster. What do you think this Museum means for Yale, F&ES, and the city of New Haven?
SKELLY: For the size of the city we have, and the size university we have, there aren’t many places that enjoy the kind of natural history museum we have — or, in fact, the collection of museums we have here in New Haven. It’s a tremendous resource. Every kid growing up hears about Brontosaurus, and Stegosaurus, and Triceratops. We not only have representatives of those species, we have those individuals from which they were named. Some might say, “Well, there is no Brontosaurus, because the name got subsumed into Apatosaurus.” True, but we get to call our specimen Brontosaurus, because it’s the one Othniel Marsh called “Brontosaurus.” You might have to use quotes, but it’s still the Brontosaurus.
It’s one thing to learn these principles in a classroom, whether you’re a school kid or a college student. It’s another thing to walk into a place that actually represents where a lot of this history was worked out, and to be able to interact with the latest generation of people who are continually re-writing our understanding of where the world has been and where it’s going.
When the Peabody opened, when that Zallinger mural was put up on the wall, people weren’t thinking about climate change and its role in driving the changes that are illustrated in those halls. But when the renovated fossil hall reopens some day, that part of the story is going to be woven in. And the ascendancy of those ideas is very much something that has flowed out of F&ES, and has become a very important part of how all kinds of scientists, and the public, are now thinking about their world. So that’s a tremendous change. And I think our school can be proud of the role it has played in promoting that understanding.