The Peabody, Yale, and Natural History: an Interview with Richard Conniff

Photo courtesy of Richard Conniff.
Richard Conniff. Photo credit: Sally Pallotto.

I first visited the Peabody Museum of Natural History in the company of hundreds of science writers. The museum was hosting a social event for the annual conference of the National Association of Science Writers, which gave me the opportunity to explore its exhibits in the company of people who were exceptionally well-informed and gifted storytellers. It was the best possible introduction.

I visited again a few years later, this time in the company of family and friends. The enthusiasm our kids showed for the exhibits was contagious, as was my friend Jeff’s passion for discussing anything related to geology. I could have spent all day there. The Peabody, in my limited experience, is just that kind of place.

So, when I saw that Richard Conniff had written a book about the Peabody, House of Lost Worlds, I wanted to read it. And I had questions.

How do you assemble a coherent narrative based on the wildly diverse research done by hundreds of people over more than a century? How do you decide what to focus on? How do you decide what to leave out?

Conniff recently took the time to answer some of my questions, ranging from the characters he left out of the book to the future of natural history museums.

Communication Breakdown: You attended Yale as an undergrad. Did you spend much time at the Peabody while you were a student?

Richard Conniff: I was an English major, and Science Hill was largely foreign territory—except for the Peabody Museum. But I realize now that I was missing the real story, both as an undergraduate and during repeated visits as an adult (often with my kids). I gawped at the dinosaurs, like everybody else. But I had no idea that T.H. Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” thought the horse fossils were important enough to spend five days at the museum working through them with paleontologist O.C. Marsh, or that Darwin himself thought the horse fossils and the toothed birds afforded “the best support to the theory of Evolution” in his lifetime.

Nor, for that matter, did I have any notion that Mr. Burns of “The Simpsons” and a character named Lily Bancroft had had sex in a second floor diorama at the museum, with penguins looking on.

CB: What first made you think that you wanted to write about the Peabody?

Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff. Photo credit: Geoffrey Giller.

Conniff: I was skeptical when the folks from Yale University Press and the Peabody first suggested a history of the Peabody. I didn’t think there was a book in one museum, or that it would have great appeal outside the Yale community. I didn’t expect great stories and I didn’t see a narrative arc. It’s embarrassing to admit this in retrospect, because the opposite turned out to be the case: I found more engaging stories in the Peabody Museum than in any of the other books I have ever written.

CB: When did you realize that this was going to be a book – rather than a magazine piece, or series of magazine pieces?

Conniff: I tested the project by writing what became the last chapter of the book. It was a profile of John Ostrom, who launched the modern dinosaur renaissance, transforming how we see dinosaurs, from plodding morons with no evolutionary future into fast, agile creatures as dynamic as any animal alive today. Indeed, he demonstrated that dinosaurs themselves are alive today: We just call them “birds.”

What hooked me was a scene described to me by an Ostrom student about the moment when Ostrom, a “squeaking honest man,” was suffering a crisis of conscience about whether to tell a Dutch museum that a specimen it had labeled a pterosaur was actually an Archaeopteryx, and only the fourth such specimen then known in the world. Ostrom needed to take it home to New Haven for proper study and thought the museum might not let him if it knew just how precious that fossil really was. And then—after the museum proudly sent him off with its new treasure—Ostrom inadvertently left the box on a sink in a public toilet and had to go scrambling back to recover it.

I suppose it helped convince me that there was a book in it when I realized that Ostrom’s work on that fossil, and on his own Deinonychus, sparked the dinosaur dreams of children everywhere and also incidentally inspired the entire “Jurassic Park” phenomenon.

CB: You write about many of the scientists whose work helped shape the Peabody and its collections. How did you decide which scientists to focus on, and which would be mentioned briefly (or not at all)?

Conniff: Some of the choices surprised me. For instance, I devote a chapter to George Bird Grinnell, an unambitious rich kid who graduated second from last in his class at Yale. But an 1870 expedition to the American West with O.C. Marsh saved him. Grinnell signed on because he thought he would get to “shoot buffalo and fight Indians.” In fact, he mostly dug fossils, and it interested him enough that he spent the next ten years at the Peabody as a graduate student and assistant to Marsh. Handling fossils also made him realize any species could go extinct. So he went on, as a magazine editor, to become one of the founders of the conservation movement in North America, a savior of the bison as it teetered on the brink of extinction, and the best, most objective and scientific reporter of the customs of the Pawnee, the Blackfeet, and the Cheyenne. He also drove through passage of the Lacey Act, still our single best law against illegal trafficking in wildlife. It was just a great human story, and also an instance of how the Peabody Museum’s influence reached beyond its walls and right into our own lives.

CB: Were there any Peabody-related scientists you found particularly fascinating, but who didn’t make it into the book?

The ornithologist Richard Prum is a great character, and I’m betting his new book on the evolution of beauty, due out next year, will be a bestseller. For House of Lost Worlds, the main narrative arc I settled on is about the dinosaur-bird connection as it developed from Marsh on up through Ostrom. But I could have carried that story on through Prum’s current work, and that of another Peabody scientist named Bhart-Anjan Bhullar. The one helped develop the first full depiction of a dinosaur, feather by feather, in its natural colors, the other has recently produced a sort of “dino chicken” in the lab. I mention both in the epilogue. But I bet they will be chapters in some future history.

Cover of "House of Lost Worlds." Photo courtesy of Yale University Press.
Cover of “House of Lost Worlds.” Photo courtesy of Yale University Press.

CB: The book effectively looks at three different things: the history of the museum itself, the lives of the scientists who worked there, and descriptions of the science and its relevance to our understanding of the world. Did you have a guiding principle for balancing those three things? For example, how did you know when you’d explained enough about the science to allow readers to understand it, without overwhelming them with information?

Conniff: If you have the impression that I worked this out with careful planning and foresight, well, bless you. The truth is that the story wrote itself. I knew almost instantly that the 1870 expedition was the place to start, and that Ostrom was where I should finish, and as I wrote, the other pieces just seemed to fall into place. If you are familiar with the idea of a “flow” state of mind, that’s where I was, and it frankly felt magical. I did not want the writing to end.

CB: One of the things I really enjoyed about the book were the sidebars, often several pages long. These were essentially asides that focused on interesting anecdotes related to the museum. I’m guessing you could have filled a book solely with stories like those. How did you decide whether one of these anecdotes merited a sidebar?

Conniff: Thank you. Well, the Peabody has inspired so many movies and so many aspects of our culture (Godzilla? Who knew?) that it had to be a sidebar, just for the fun of it. As with my last book, The Species Seekers, I was also continually aware of how thoroughly women were excluded from the history of discovery. So when I found Grace Pickford, a mid-twentieth century marine biologist, and realized how unfortunately her life fit into that pattern, and into the story of Yale’s uneasy and sometimes disrespectful history with science, that was a natural sidebar. Her personal style, which did not follow male-female conventions, also gave her character special poignancy.

CB: You clearly had excellent access to the museum, its archives and its experts. How did you develop that relationship with the museum? I mean, do you just walk in to the museum and say “I want to write a book about this place”?

Conniff: I think The Species Seekers walked in ahead of me, and that opened doors, with maybe some help from another book of mine called Spineless Wonders. The one who was most cautious at first was the Peabody Museum’s reserved and somewhat skeptical archivist, Barbara Narendra. But she turned out to be a source of all knowledge about the history of the place. If there was a note scrawled on a piece of paper 150 years ago, she could tell me who wrote it. If I had a question, she would email “working on it” and come back with the answer soon after. Dan Brinkman in paleontology was also amazingly helpful. Among other things, he’s the one who told me about Ostrom and Archaeopteryx, though he was reluctant to put the story on the record at first. Finally, I had a research assistant, a beginning science writer, named Geoff Giller. He was great at pulling together the various bits of research, which we shared through Google Docs. He also introduced me to an app called Genius Scan, which enabled us both to produce pdfs of almost anything, so chapter-by-chapter documentation was always handy online for fact-checking. For past books, I have accumulated a three-ring binder for each chapter and boxes and boxes of backup research. For this book, I filled part of one box. The rest is online.

CB: One of the things that struck me about the book was how often Yale undercut the Peabody. The museum would be making significant progress, and the university would then cut off or delay funding, setting the museum back for years. Did that surprise you? And was there any pushback from the museum or university about highlighting those efforts to sideline the Peabody?

Conniff: Science played second fiddle at Yale right up until the 1950s, but, yes, I was surprised by how badly the university treated the astonishing discoveries being made at the Peabody Museum for much of its history. I suspect O.C. Marsh didn’t help the museum’s standing on campus because of his arrogance and the highly public bad behavior by both sides in the notorious “Bone Wars” with Edward Drinker Cope. That just wasn’t how Yale men were supposed to behave. I didn’t get any pushback about depicting Yale’s past attitude toward science as I saw it. Some people at the museum grumble a bit though and remind that the university currently contributes the bulk of the museum’s budget, well into the millions annually. Over the past 20 years, Yale has also been making a dramatic effort to improve the standing of its science programs, including the current construction of two new residential colleges nearby, so Science Hill no longer feels so remote from the rest of undergraduate life.

CB: The book also includes a lot of photographs, from carefully staged photos of archived materials to black-and-white photos from field expeditions. As great as the photos are, I was struck by the absence of certain images. For example, there’s an entire chapter on the Age of Reptiles mural, but no image of the mural itself. How did you decide which images to use (and which to leave out)?

Conniff: You are right about Rudi Zallinger’s mural. It is, at 110-feet, very big and hard to photograph or to present as a single spread of a book. But it should be there in some form. No excuse. Regarding other photos, the Peabody folks at first suggested a lot of images of eminent older men. I wanted to see the scientists in their prime, when they did the work that made them eminent. There was a particular anecdote in the text about the young invertebrate zoologist Addison E. Verrill getting so mad at Louis Agassiz that he kicked a supposedly mad dog on the walk home. I wanted that Verrill, the one who kicked the dog, and the photo of him in the book hints at that emotion. I also love some images in the book, like the one of a preparator working on a Torosaurus skull as a pterosaur spreads its wings on the wall behind him, and the one of the members of the 1872 expedition, also Yale students, armed to the teeth and looking like the worst sort of frontier desperadoes.

CB: You end the book with a call to arms in support of natural history museums, arguing for their importance and the need to support them. What do you think the fate of natural history museums in general – and the Peabody in particular – will be over the course of the 21st century?

Conniff: It’s grim. I just wrote an opinion piece about it last week in the New York Times. A Republican governor in Illinois has shut down the Illinois State Museum, after 138 years, in what one curator described as an act of “political corruption and malevolent anti-intellectualism.”

Meanwhile Kentucky is granting $18 million in tax incentives to display dinosaurs on Noah’s ark in a religious theme park. Competition with “Science Museums,” which feature whizbang kid-friendly displays but do no actual research, also hurts. Some museums try to survive by shifting to entertainment. In a heartbreaking response to the article, one biologist recounted his own rich childhood experience at the Dayton Museum of Natural History in Ohio, taking summer classes in such subjects as streams, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and fossils. But when he later took his family there to show off the inspiration of his youth, “There was virtually no natural history on display. No truly educational exhibits. The place had been turned into a playground, with stupid games, slides, big plastic tubes to crawl through, and other nonsense.”

Because it’s part of a research university, the Peabody Museum is safe. A few of the other leading museums—The Smithsonian’s NMNH in Washington, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, The Field Museum in Chicago, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco—will also survive, though with reduced research staffs. But the rest of us need to wake up and support natural history museums if we want to understand such major developments as climate change, invasive species, mass extinctions—or to end positively, our own great new age of species discovery—all of which will profoundly shape our future on this planet.


One thought on “The Peabody, Yale, and Natural History: an Interview with Richard Conniff

  1. A great interview, both questions and answers. I’m working on a history of a mostly unknown US-USSR/Russian biosatellite research project initiated in the Cold War but continuing to today. Am writing it as told in interviews with the participants (I was one of them) so your challenges and insights are very relevant. Stories of the changing perceptions of science and evolution to the education of researchers and the public are essential to share. Our perception of human history and its place in the evolution of the natural world must be understood for us to take the critical actions we can in the hopes of securing a survivable future. Thanks so much for sharing the story of producing the book with us.


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