Reinvigorating Natural History at Yale University's Peabody Museum

Centerbrook Architects and Planners and ASSA ABLOY Collaboration Garnered 2021 Good Design® Award

peabody museum


peabody dinosaurFrom the fossils of massive dinosaurs to cultural artifacts discovered across the globe, over 14 million specimens and objects at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History tell the fascinating story of Earth, its life, and cultures.

These awe-inspiring collections form the foundation of the natural world. They also form the foundation of the holistic design encompassing the museum’s current renovation project.

peabody exhibitEstablished in 1866 at Yale University, the Peabody is one of the oldest, most important scientific institutions in the nation. Its mission: to advance the understanding of the earth’s history through geological, biological, and anthropological research.

Equally important is sharing the research with the widest audience possible through educational programs, communication, and exhibitions.

peabody courtyardSince 1925, the museum’s three-story French Gothic brick and dark brownstone building has been home to the Peabody’s treasures. The collections enhance research and teaching at Yale. They also capture the imagination of the public.  Every year, more than 130,000 visitors have immersed themselves in the Peabody’s visually inspiring exhibits and rich experiential learning environment.

That experience is about to get even better, down to the finest touches as you pass through the museum’s 200+ doors.

peabody bonesThanks to Charles Darwin and the like-minded brilliant people who followed, evolution has morphed into a science far beyond the theory that once astounded the world. Its evidence has been on full display at the Peabody Museum for over 95 years and has never ceased to amaze. Today, the physical form of the Peabody itself is evolving.

peabody dinosaur fossilComprehensive renovation and additions to the Peabody’s iconic building are now underway that will redefine the institution and support scientific advancement well past the next 95 years and into the 22nd century. It’s the first rejuvenation project of its kind in the museum’s legendary history.

Based on a decade of master planning by Yale University and Centerbrook Architects & Planners, construction began in 2020 on 172,355 square feet of improvements including a 57,631 SF four-story infill addition that will expand the museum and connect it to the University’s Environmental Science Center.

peabody atriumThe renovation and expansion adds 50% more gallery space and advanced exhibit technology. Inside the Museum, large fossils will stand in new dynamic poses. Additional anthropological exhibits will fill a new upper floor. And the lower floor will feature new research and restoration labs, secure storage systems, state-of-the-art climatic control to improve the preservation of collections, and the latest in engaging, interactive display technology.

centerbrook custom designSpecific details of the museum’s programs, site, surroundings, artifacts, and cultural history are at the heart of Centerbrook’s design. It extends all the way to the Peabody’s custom door hardware, a creative collaboration between ASSA ABLOY and Centerbrook, led by Mark Simon, FAIA and principal at the architectural firm.

As David Skelly, Director of the Peabody, explains, “Very early on in the design process, Mark came to me and said he wanted to develop door handles that reflected the essence of the museum in a way that would make people look at them and get ‘that’s a Peabody door handle!’”

“That inspired me to think maybe we should have something that looks and feels natural,” adds Simon. “This is the Peabody Museum of Natural History after all. People simply function better when they feel a connection to nature. And that includes everything from having large windows and seeing outside to fine details like this.”

Sandy Matheny, Director of Decorative Openings at ASSA ABLOY, explains why a custom approach mattered, “Since door hardware can be one of the most intimate points of contact we have with a space and because Mark’s inspiration called for a unique organic design, custom hardware was the obvious approach. Fortunately, at ASSA ABLOY, we can make a door opening functionally appropriate and make it look fantastic, too.”

For the Peabody, Osteo-Architecture may best describe the inspiration behind the design of the lever and pull that will accentuate the doorways. According to Simon, “We brainstormed with ASSA ABLOY and decided to cast the door levers in brass. That gives them a weighty, substantial feel. They have a sculptural quality that conforms to the palm of the hand, and the grip features a subtle thumbprint detail.”

peabody custom door leverpeabody custom door pullThe door lever is part of the trim for the Sargent Manufacturing mechanical lock, access control, and exit devices that contractors will install throughout the museum. The Rockwood door pull complements the lever. It features an elliptical grip at a slight angle that also incorporates the thumbprint detail for continuity. All the door hardware will have a custom dark bronze finish that Centerbrook specified to match the aluminum storefront and interior framing systems.

Simon is thrilled with how it all turned out, “The nice thing about this hardware is it’s going to show up on both sides of over 200 doors at all the different places in the museum old and new. It’s going to tie the whole thing together.”

David Skelly agrees, “Anything that people touch and see and feel—the exhibits and everything around them—are absolutely part of the experience that ignites people’s curiosity and gets them in a mode to want to learn more.” He adds, “The handles and pulls look like they have a connection to a fossil or bone artifact…facets like the rounded shape…that’s what we see in nature. Mark, Centerbrook, ASSA ABLOY, everyone did a beautiful job.”

goodd esign award“Working together with ASSA ABLOY on the custom door hardware was effortless,” says Simon. “I was astonished how open to ideas they were. I had assumed a large corporation like that would have very strict rules about what could be done, what couldn’t be done. That wasn’t the case at all.

“We’re delighted it won the Good Design Award. We were up against the biggest and best designers in the world,” adds Simon. “So, it’s thrilling! How something feels in your hand is a sense architects often forget about. I’m glad we didn’t.”

You might say it was simply a natural fit for such a landmark renovation.

See the video for more about the project!