The Bison are back and better than ever at New Haven’s Peabody Museum
NEW HAVEN — The 19th century bison encased in a diorama — the virtual reality machines of an earlier era — have been repaired and are ready to enjoy another century.
The three bison — a male, a female and a calf — are part of the North American Dioramas at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
Over the past several months, museum preparator and sculptor Michael Anderson has been engaged in the meticulous work of restoring the Mule Deer, Alaskan Brown Bear and the Bison dioramas on the third floor of the Peabody.
A celebration Monday marked the completion of the repairs with an emphasis on the bison, the last of the three, where fur from the hidden side of the animals was used to create “felted” patches that now cover any bald spots as part of stabilizing the pelts. Cracks throughout the mounts also were repaired and the fur was re-dyed.
Dried grass in the diorama, which was discovered to have come from Connecticut, has been replaced with grasses from Wyoming, and a skink has been recreated with the use of a 3D printer. The two adult bison also got nose jobs.
The three bison mounts, collected from wild herds in Wyoming, originally were part of an 1889 diorama at the American Museum of Natural History put together by Jenness Richardson. They were bought by the Peabody in 1945 and installed here in the mid-1950s. The mural behind it was by painted by Francis Lee Jaques.
The objects in the three-dimensional foreground of the dioramas had been more adversely affected over the years, than the painted scenes, according to museum staff.
“This was the best project,” said an excited Anderson, who has worked at the museum for 30 years. He did much of the repairs behind a glass enclosure where the public would pepper him with questions as he was leaving daily. Anderson also is the creator of the Peabody’s Torosaurus sculpture.
With the help of two conservators from the American Museum of Natural History, they figured out a protocol on how best to preserve the mounts by covering the cracks with a strong, flexible polyester material and shingling the pelts.
There was a gasp from the audience of Yale staff and representatives of the Avangrid Foundation, which provided the $25,000 grant for the museum project, when Anderson said a botanist determined the grasses in the bison exhibit were from Connecticut.
“I said, ‘no this can’t be,’” Anderson said was his reaction when wrong grasses were included. “This must have been done in a rush.”
Real Wyoming grasses were sent overnight mail from a Yale field station in Wyoming. After being dried and painted, they now are in the foreground of the diorama.
They also discovered that some of the flowers actually were wadded paper with orange paint on it. Anderson then built some tiny scarlet globemallow plants for an authentic addition.
Collin Moret, who assisted Anderson, used equipment available at the Peabody’s West Campus, as well as at the engineering department, to recreate a skink, a small lizard, with digital technology rather than time-consuming casting and molding.
Moret is working on other projects, including a new dodo bird, as the one in the museum is “too fat.”
He has scanned the skeleton and will use software to sculpt the muscles on the bones to be printed out and then covered with feathers.
“We have a dodo, but it is a fat dodo,” Anderson said. “We are going to try to make it relate to the skeleton and the musculature which is the best way to do a sculpture, to do reconstruction.”
In the end, the dodo the public will see will be thinner.
The work on the dioramas is part of stabilizing some exhibits before the Peabody begins a long renovation, as well as a construction project that will fill in the courtyard in the center of the L-shaped museum.
The Great Hall, where the dinosaurs are displayed, will start being dismantled in January 2020, with the rest of the museum set to undergo a phased closing, according to Carol Denatale, project director at the Peabody.
She said they want to stay open as long as possible as the upgrading begins.
“There will always be something open until October of 2020,” Denatale said. By January 2021, it will go into full construction. She said they estimate the addition will be done in late 2023, but that is still being studied.
The goal is to preserve the 1925 Peabody designed by architect Charles Klauder and put up the addition, which is being supported with a $165 million donation by Edward Bass. Yale is continuing to fund raise for some $20 million more.
Denatale said the new space will allow more than 50 percent additional exhibition space . It will include a central atrium with a “very welcoming space with soft seating where people can come here and hang out,” she said.
Between the Peabody and the Kline Biology tower will be a new courtyard with a new entrance to the museum for a total of three entry ways.
The main entrance will continue to be from Whitney Avenue with a new one that will be safer for bus excursions to the Peabody off Sachem Street. There also will be a K-12 education center in the lower level with classrooms. The third one off the courtyard is more oriented to Yale staff and students.
The courtyard also will be a main connection up to the 500-seat O.C. Marsh lecture hall in the new adjacent Science Building under construction and due to open in summer.
“We can continue our programming up there when we are closed and very much plan to have ongoing programming in the community, as well as at the lecture hall and other venues during the entire time,” she said.
“Our exhibition halls may be closing, but the Peabody Museum will continue to operate,” she said.
This includes all the research and the public community programs, including the summer camps. The parking lot near the new Science Building also will be back once that construction finishes.
“It is going to be a much more visitor-friendly place in the future,” she said. “A lot more attention to visitor comforts.” She said there will be a larger Discovery Room that will accommodate adults as well as children and will feature live animals.
The architect for the in-fill building is Centerbrook, and the designer for the exhibits is Reich and Petch out of Canada.
Nicole Licata Grant, director of the Avangrid Foundation and a New Haven native and Yale University graduate, said the foundation tries to be a partner with the community by assisting education, art and culture projects and is particularly happy to work with the Peabody.
The foundation is the charitable arm of Avangrid, parent company of United Illuminating, Southern Connecticut Gas and Connecticut Natural Gas. Avangrid operates in 24 states providing transmission and distribution services with a headquarters in Orange. It is part of the Iberdrola family of companies out of Spain.
Licata Grant said the Peabody is a gateway to the Yale community, where the public gets to know the campus.
Having grown up in New Haven, she said she is very familiar with the Peabody’s murals and exhibits.
“They were the first experience for me to understand the majesty of the North American landscape, to really understand what this continent held beyond the borders of New Haven. They inspire quiet contemplation in a time when maybe we have less of that to see what is and what maybe could be,” Licata Grant said of the project.
The foundation also has given money to the Fiesta Latina and the evolution project at the museum