A Peabody kid becomes the museum’s director

Biologist David Skelly is an authority on amphibians.

Julie Brown

Julie Brown

New Peabody Museum director David Skelly is an authority on amphibians. View full image

The new director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History comes in with an advantage. You might call it love of nature; he calls it “feral tendencies.”

David Skelly was an outdoors kid from an early age, and he fell in love with swamps, bogs, and other wetlands. That led him to study biology at Middlebury and the University of Vermont, and to a career studying wildlife, especially amphibians. He is now an ecology professor at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has a wealth of field research and teaching expertise, and has been the Peabody’s curator of amphibians for the past 14 years.

His other inspiration was the Peabody itself. He grew up in Wilton, Connecticut, and “was first brought to the museum when I was no more than five,” he says. “What I saw there completely captivated my imagination. As soon as I knew what a scientist was, that’s what I wanted to become. The Peabody showed me how an interest in the natural world could be shaped into a grown-up occupation.”

Skelly replaced paleontology professor Derek Briggs as director on July 1. (Briggs, who had held the post since 2008, will return to teaching and research.) He says these are challenging times for museums. “We’ve always been about information and understanding. But right now, every kid with an iPad or smartphone has access to all sorts of things—so the way we encounter the public and get them out of their chairs is changing. We’re going to have to come up with new strategies that open the same kinds of doors I walked through many years ago.”

The new director has succeeded with one tough audience: his kids. “They’re little museum rats, and they love the Peabody,” Skelly says. When his eight-year-old son Aidan was told about the pending appointment, he had some advice for his dad. “I would totally do that,” he said.

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