As one of the oldest and biggest museums of its kind worldwide, with more than 13 million objects, there’s a lot to love about the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. David K. Skelly, its director, fell in love with it at a very early age. He became the Peabody’s director in 2014, but his first memories of walking into the Whitney Avenue building date back to when he was preschool aged.
In addition to leading the museum, he is the Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. Prior to being named director at the Peabody, he was associate dean and director of doctoral studies at the forestry and environmental school, where he has been a faculty member since 1996. He’s also a field biologist who has authored more than 80 papers.
But long before the high-profile jobs at Yale, Skelly says, the path to his career began when he was a young “dinosaur kid,” fascinated by the world around him.
He recently took time out of a busy day to discuss what he loves about the Peabody and New Haven.
Q: What’s your earliest memory of visiting a museum?
A: That goes way back. I’ve been coming to the [Peabody] museum since somewhere in the four- to five-years-old range. I can vividly remember walking into the Great Hall for the first time and seeing the dinosaurs, particularly the Brontosaurus, and just feeling that feeling when the hairs on the back of your next go up. Fast forward many years … and I had a job interview at Yale and they asked if there’s anything I wanted to see while I was in town and I said, “I want to go to the Peabody Museum.” And I still get that feeling.
Q: What was it about natural history that drew you to the field?
A: I don’t feel like I chose my profession; I just always was interested in the natural world. I was always interested in animals, in particular. I always wanted to be outdoors. And once I discovered dinosaurs, I became one of those dinosaur kids for many years. That led to a broader interest in ecology and the environment.
Q: What do you think is the coolest exhibit at the Peabody?
A: I have many, many favorites. I would have to say that it’s our fossil turtle; its name is Archelon. It’s not only one of the biggest turtles that ever lived – Archelon has a personal narrative. This animal appears to have lived at least part of its adult life with only three out of its four limbs. The right hind limb is missing.
When the animal was discovered in the 1800s, it was in a posture that sea turtles today are known to adopt when they do the sea turtle equivalent of hibernating. That suggests the animal lived an uneventful part of its life after, probably, something gigantic took a significant portion of its leg. The most likely answer is that a Mosasaur, a very large relative of lizards that was a big predator, just took a piece of this poor animal off and swam off with it. That has just always captured my imagination.
Q: Which exhibit is most popular with visitors?
A: The dinosaurs are always a big draw. There’s often a line to get into the Discovery Room, which is where we have the live animal displays. A couple of years ago, we opened David Friend Hall (which showcases gems and minerals) and that has joined the other two as one of the favorite spaces. There’s always a good crowd of people in there. The setting in there is different; there’s much more attention given to the way everything in there is set and lit, and it provides drama.
Q: What is your favorite way to spend a day in New Haven?
A: New Haven is a wonderful place for museums and for culture. For a city its size, we are just so incredibly blessed. My wife and I love taking our kids to the Yale Art Gallery, Yale Center for British Art, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. This is such a rich environment for museums.
Q: Where is your favorite place to grab lunch or dinner?
A: My wife (Kealoha Freidenburg, a research scientist and lecturer at Yale) is Hawaiian, so the poke places have loomed large on our radar since they popped up. I love good poke. We have this village of food carts on Science Hill and that’s also a favorite.
Q: What’s your favorite time of year in the city?
A: The fall here, around the time the Yale students show up, is a beautiful time of year. There’s just such a great energy as the students pour in here. It’s one of my favorite times of year.
Photography by STAN GODLEWSKI