Finding the stories in fossils

A new director for the Peabody Museum.

Michael Marsland

Michael Marsland

For new Peabody Museum director Derek Briggs, history begins more than 500 million years ago. View full image

“I’ve always liked museums—there are extraordinary things in museum drawers,” says Derek E. G. Briggs, who in July will become the 16th director of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. "And there’s always the possibility of making an exciting discovery with something that appears out of nowhere.”

Briggs would know. When he was a graduate student in paleontology at the University of Cambridge in the 1970s, Briggs, a fellow student, and their professor reanalyzed 510-million-year-old fossils from British Columbia that had been lying in museum drawers. Their findings overturned conventional thinking about the early evolution of life.

Originally from Ireland, Briggs held several teaching positions in English universities before joining the Yale geology and geophysics faculty in 2003. In his work here he has analyzed, and created digital models of, the internal anatomy of a group of 425-million-year-old seafloor invertebrates whose soft tissues were unusually well preserved in fossils. He serves as curator of the 4 million to 5 million specimens in the Peabody’s invertebrate paleontology collection and director of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, a center for training and research in the environmental sciences.

Briggs was named to head the Peabody when the current director, Michael Donoghue, decided not to seek a second term. Briggs plans to move forward on Donoghue’s initiatives to build new public and exhibit space, update existing displays, and expand the museum’s outreach efforts. "We're also planning make imaginative use of Yale’s new West Campus to enable some of our collections to be more accessible and better preserved, as well as to use the site’s outdoor areas for environmental education programs,” says Briggs. "This museum has a lot of important contributions to make.”

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