A World of Wonder: Opening the David Friend Hall at the Peabody Museum

Peabody curators hope that the unusual shapes and curious colors of the gems in David Friend Hall will excite the curiosity of the visitors. The objects are presented minimally, focusing the attention entirely on the raw beauty of the Earth. Photo by Robert Lorenz, courtesy of Yale Peabody Museum

Step into the Peabody’s new David Friend Hall and it might take a minute for your eyes to adjust to the darkness—and then another hour for your mind to adjust to the dazzling marvels that surround you. From the 2000-pound, quartz crystal cluster from Namibia to the 30-million-year old sandstone concretionmooth undulating curves, each object in the hall aims to wow visitors. Curators carefully chose every detail—from the lighting to the case design—to showcase the world-class treasures here in New Haven, Connecticut.

Dramatic lighting highlights specimens with dazzling clarity and draws attention to the kaleidoscope of colors filling the hall. This focus on showmanship was well developed; David Friend (YC’69), who donated 4-million dollars for the exhibit, hoped to fill people with a sense of wonder. “The function of a museum is not so much to teach, but to inspire a desire to learn,” Friend said, shortly before he cut the ribbon to officially open the exhibit.

It is fitting for Yale to host this transformative mineral exhibit, since modern mineralogy originated here. Just as Carl Linnaeus brought order to the living world by classifying plants and animals, Yale professor James Dwight Dana brought order to the world of minerals with a classification scheme that is still used today. Geology has been strong at Yale ever since Benjamin Silliman, Yale’s and the nation’s first science professor, started teaching it at the beginning of the 1800s. In 1818 he also started the American Journal of Science. Not only is the AJS the oldest continuously published scientific journal in the United States, it is one of the most influential journals in the fields of geology and mineralogy.

The Peabody Museum continues to challenge the expectations for natural history museums with the David Friend Hall. Rather than bombard visitors with text, the exhibit isolates the singular beauty of sparkling minerals. Educational materials for the displays are instead captured by a smartphone application, where visitors can access and browse background information. In addition, the gallery will feature rotating displays: many specimens are on temporary loan from private collectors, so new treasures will be featured in the future. Although art galleries often feature loaned objects, the David Friend Hall is one of the few natural history exhibits to do the same.

And the treasures are dazzling indeed. Beside the 2000-pound quartz stands a giant geode from Uruguay, completely encrusted by deep purple amethyst shards. Nearby, a white-board sized fossil of a fan-like frond flanked by ancient fish demands your attention. The crystals, ranging from a five by four-foot fluorite from China to miniature “thumbnail” specimens in a display case, vary in size, shape, and geographic origin. “If you go around and look at every single crystal, they’re from all over the world,” said Dave Skelly, the Director of the Peabody Museum. Exhibits Designer Laura Friedman and Stefan Nicolescu, Mineralogy and Meteoritics Collections Manager, guided the selection of minerals, consulting private collections throughout the country and selecting specimens for their wow factor. “The interest is to stir curiosity, and to make people want to know more about these things,” said Nicolescu.

The recent ribbon cutting ceremony thoroughly explored this theme of curiosity and inspiration: “The goal is to capture people’s imagination, particularly, the imaginations of budding young scientists, to get them fascinated by the natural world,” said Jay Ague, chair of Yale’s Department of Geology and Geophysics and Curator-in-Charge of the Peabody’s Division of Mineralogy and Meteoritics. And they hope to reach far beyond New Haven. Since its inception 150 years ago, the Peabody Museum has served as the archetype for many natural history museums. The curators of the David Friend Hall hope their vision will also set an example that diffuses globally.

For New Haven residents and Yale University students, the hall breathes new life into an already brilliant collection of natural history. “I think this exhibit will certainly bring more students up [to the Peabody],” said Dean Jonathan Holloway. The brilliant jewels may just inspire an essay topic or prompt curiosity for understanding our world.

Special thanks to Dr. Nicolescu for his time and passion for mineralogy, and for speaking with the author.