Elaina Foley

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Until I was standing in between the rows of towering metal specimen cabinets, I didn’t understand how many birds the Yale Peabody Museum holds. Like most people, I had only experienced the display side of museums: its dioramas and glass cases. These displays, while made to embody a certain set of interests, priorities, and values, still serve an obscuring function—they vastly underrepresent the museum’s total collections. In their ornithology collection alone, the Peabody currently holds more than 152,000 bird skins, bones, eggs, nests, and other avian fragments. The Peabody staff members who maintain the ornithology specimen collections are distinct from those who create the displays; as a result, the knowledge produced through museum-based research is shaped by the interests and imaginations of who has collection access. This thesis seeps into, around, and under the locked spaces of museums’ death-rich collections. I consider how institutional actors experience complex emotions about life and death, nature and culture, as they labor to maintain what is—on one level—an avian crypt. Understanding how specimen collections embody specific ethical and ontological orientations to the world offers an opportunity to reimagine the science done within (and beyond) sites like the Peabody.

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