Tour America's Treasures

An invitation to tour America's historical sites...

Friday, June 8, 2012

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

Visit our Tour Destination: Connecticut page to see the entire tour of the state’s Save America’s Treasures sites.

The Great Hall at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History with the
Rudolph F. Zallinger mural "The Age of Reptiles" in the background.
Photo courtesy of Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
170 Whitney Avenue
New Haven, CT

The Treasure:  Unearthed out west in the late 19th century under the guidance of Othniel Charles Marsh, the magnificent dinosaur fossil collections of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History are a tribute to Professor Marsh’s passion for scientific exploration and discovery.

Accessibility:  The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 to 5 and on Sunday from noon to 5.

Portrait of young Othniel Charles Marsh,
seated, with bowler hat.
Photo courtesy of Yale Peabody
Museum of Natural History.
Background:  The first professor of paleontology to be appointed in the United States, Othniel Charles Marsh (1831-1899) set out to document America’s prehistory—and to support Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection—through the systematic collection of fossils. The large fossils of giant reptiles and mammals fascinated him above all. As both a professor at Yale University and the first director of the Yale Peabody Museum, Marsh led and organized expeditions into the newly-discovered rich fossil beds in Colorado, Wyoming, and the Dakota territories. Under Marsh’s guidance, large shipments of massive dinosaur fossils were regularly shipped eastward via the new railway systems, heading toward a new home at the Yale Peabody Museum.

Members of the Hale College Scientific Expedition of 1872;
Othniel Charles Marsh in center in back row.
Photo courtesy of Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
A keen and observant scientist, Marsh’s identifications and descriptions of America’s great dinosaur fossils lay a significant foundation for the work of succeeding generations of American paleontologists to build upon. Marsh identified the long-necked sauropod Apatosaurus in 1877 and the more-famous Brontosaurus in 1879 (shortly after Marsh’s death, scientific consensus moved toward identifying both specimens under the same genus of Apatosaurus). Marsh named and described the iconic Stegosaurus and Allosaurus in 1877 and Triceratops in 1889. These names—and the giant dinosaurs associated with them—resonated with the imagination of the general public.

Marsh entered into American legend as a result of his titanic decades-long feud with America’s other top paleontologist, Edward Drinker Cope of Philadelphia. Tensions between the two began to simmer at a Haddonfield, New Jersey get-together in 1868 and reached a full boil in 1877 when both simultaneously learned of dinosaur-laden beds near Morrison, Colorado. Over the following 15 years, the two scientists aggressively competed for dominance in their field, picking fights against the iconic background of a seemingly lawless western frontier.

This extended period of rivalry—sometimes known as the Bone Wars—raised unfortunate questions about the integrity of both scientists, even while each was amassing truly amazing collections and publishing much solid science. Ultimately, Cope’s collection went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City while Marsh’s magnificent collection was preserved at the museum he was instrumental in founding, the Yale Peabody Museum. The fossils that Marsh brought east continue to be studied by today’s paleontologists as they seek to learn about life in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods—America as it looked 65 million to 200 million years ago.

The Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus) skeleton in the background and a
Stegosaurus skeleton in the foreground in the Great Hall of the
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
Photo courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Notes from the Editor:  It’s starting to look like I’ll never outgrow my childhood love of dinosaurs. Within the past year, I’ve enjoyed finding excuses to write about the pioneer dinosaur painter Charles R. Knight and Victorian dinosaur sculptor Waterhouse Hawkins. Now I get to add Rudolph F. Zallinger to this prestigious list of great paleoartists!

Rudolph F. Zallinger (1919-1995) was still a student at Yale University’s School of Fine Arts when Peabody Museum Director Albert E. Parr approached him with an interesting proposition. Parr decided that a broad stretch of empty wall in the museum’s great hall would benefit from some color. Other important dinosaur collections at The Field Museum (Chicago, IL) and the American Museum of Natural History (New York, NY) had been enlivened by extensive murals and paintings of prehistoric life. Parr wanted something equally impressive for his museum.

Zallinger conceived the idea of one long mural (110 feet by 16 feet) that would depict the world as it looked from the first stirrings of animal life on land through the end of the age of dinosaurs. He worked on this colossal project, called The Age of Reptiles, from 1943 to 1947, creating a paleoart masterpiece that takes the viewer on a stroll through prehistoric landscapes spanning approximately 300 million years. Zallinger’s remarkably effective dry fresco technique, based on Renaissance practices, provides for exquisite colorful details that give the mural an almost photorealist quality.

The Life Magazine cover,
September 7, 1953.
Over the years, images drawn from this mural have entered the public consciousness through various publications including the cover of Life Magazine in 1953 and a six-cent U.S. postage stamp issued in 1970. I first came to love the Zallinger dinosaurs through a paperback book called Prehistoric Life, a 1965 reprint of a 1954 publication of the National Audubon Society with tear-out adhesive stamps featuring classic prehistoric scenes from paleoartists including Charles R. Knight and Rudolph Zallinger.

Zallinger’s complementary mural The Age of Mammals, painted from 1961 to 1967, can be viewed in the Hall of Mammalian Evolution at the Yale Peabody Museum.

Here’s a delightful six-minute video introduction to Zallinger’s The Age of Reptiles that provides a good sense of the truly monumental scale of the work:

Other Recommended Sites:  To see the complementary collection of 19th century dinosaurs collected by Marsh’s rival Edward Drinker Cope, visit the American Museum of Natural History (New York, NY). And for the other essential 19th century dinosaur discoveries, visit the Academy of Natural Sciences (Philadelphia, PA), home of the Hadrosaurus foulkii, the first dinosaur skeleton to be identified and mounted in the United States.

At Dinosaur State Park (Rocky Hill, CT), you can explore one of the largest sets of fossilized dinosaur tracks in North America. The three-toed tracks have been identified as belonging to a carnivorous dinosaur named Eubrontes and they date back to the early Jurassic. While no actual fossilized bones of this particular dinosaur have been discovered yet, the impressive tracks themselves were sufficient to earn Eubrontes the title of official Connecticut State Fossil.

A watercolor sketch by Arthur Lakes showing expedition members
E. Kennedy and Bill Reed with dinosaur bones at Como Bluff, Wyoming.
Photo courtesy of Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Tour America's History Itinerary
Wednesday’s destination:  Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

© 2012 Lee Price

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