In 2018, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History was about to go through a massive renovation. The physical makeover would add exhibition, classroom, and storage space, as well as updating the museum’s infrastructure. Unfortunately, the museum would have to close to the public during for the two years of construction. But when it emerged, what would the museum be? What is the role for a university natural history museum in the 21st century?
In over a century of existence, the Peabody had played many roles at Yale and the surrounding New Haven community. Initially, the museum was something of trophy case for the collecting enthusiasms of roving faculty. They sent back to New Haven the crates and crates of fossils and minerals they gathered in their various adventures. These objects became important scientific materials, providing evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution as well as other theories about species diversity. In time, the collections expanded and fueled numerous research labs that supported work in multiple disciplines. The museum also protected the precious objects so that future generations might be able to reveal additional mysteries about the natural world.
The objects proved attractive to the public, especially children. Teachers in the surrounding communities used trips to the Peabody to motivate their students to study science. The Peabody also became a gateway to Yale, a portal that helped explain to the public what faculty and students were up to inside the otherwise opaque buildings.
The Peabody also served the undergraduate and graduate students as a classroom and as a lab. Students benefited from examining objects directly, and the labs helped them learn about scientific method and inquiry. Students also served in volunteer roles explaining the collections to the public.
And so over time, the Peabody had come to play many roles with many audiences. Following the renovation, how could the museum enhance its engagement with its audiences - increasing the number of interactions and building the depth of connection? Furthermore, the remodel not only afforded opportunities, but also raised additional questions about the physical space. How should the museum incorporate new technologies that enhanced the user experience, without taking attention away from the objects displayed?
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Jessica Helfand, Jean Rosenthal, Jaan Elias, and Greg MacDonald, "Peabody Museum: Imagining the Future of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History," Yale SOM Case 18-010, February 9, 2018
- User Experience
- Arts Management
- Innovation & Design
- Social Enterprise
This Yale School of Management case has been made possible by the generous support of the Forrest E. Mars, Sr. Fund for Values and Ethics in Management.