By Laurencia Ciprus

David Friend stands with a 2,600 lb Nambian Quartz Cystal on permanent display.

Infinite beauty accessorizes the natural world in repetitive patterns: Fibonacci numbers in proportioned cubicles of the chambered nautilus, six-fold radial symmetry in the delicate armature of a snowflake, or fractal spikes and spirals in a clutch of Romanesco Broccoli hiding in the crisper. From dinosaur bones to meteorites, giant squid and relics of fancy invertebrates, the 150 years of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History’s collection can be attributed to an impressive roster of scientific seers, scholars, and adventurers. These renegade geniuses share their own repetitive pattern of tenacity, altruism, unfettered vision, and a mercurial sense of adventure to chase down scientific marvels – often, in maximally rough conditions and at great personal risk – adding to the texture and gravitas of this New Haven institution with a mesmerizing array of physical specimens.

Carbonite cloud backup founder David Friend (Yale ’69) – an avid mineral collector since childhood – is the latest ardent contributor, adding an excellence of intention and generous financial backing to the dazzle and wonderment of the Peabody with the completion of the state-of-the-art 2,300-square-foot David Friend Hall to mark the Peabody’s 150th anniversary. Housing in excess of 150 scintillating gem and mineral specimens, the gallery is dramatically lit and impeccably curated, the space mutable to double as an auditorium. This sparkling trove opened to the public in October 2016 to gasp-worthy praise. To sustain the momentum, the choice and rare exemplars in this exhibition – 90% sourced from museums and private collections around the US – will be rotated from six months to two years to provide ongoing public access to a greater depth and breadth of these treasures.

Friend shared, “There are only 50 or so major collectors in the world…similar to the art world.” He confided, “We went around and took a chance visiting these major people. Collectors want to have their pieces viewed, and the opportunity for exhibition becomes an added benefit to the provenance.” The pieces he was able to secure are of superlative quality, with enchanting gem and mineral formations in unique combination, fanciful shapes, and of staggering scale.

David Friend considered other institutions for this undertaking, but settled on his alma mater, which welcomed both his philanthropic support while also offering a genuine collaborative effort in realizing the collector’s vision. Friend, in concert with the multi-faceted exhibition designer, Laura Friedman and collections manager-cognoscenti, scientist Stefan Nicolescu, collectively formed the cohesive team. The resultant space is a superlative convergence of fine art and theatrical excellence. The impeccably engineered lighting catapults the experience to mesmerizing.

The hall is decisively interactive and each display configured with state-of-the art transmitters currently providing wireless access to information via a customized iPhone app on six of the largest specimens on display. Laura Friedman’s adroit visual choreography is a sleek and spare surrealist landscape. Opting out of the usual wall notes, she leads you through an intuitive labyrinth of reflective magic, with colossal specimens floating in handcrafted glass vitrines.

Among the innumerable wonders is the backlit Namibian quartz crystal, a 2,000 lb. touchable golden welcome at the entrance. Shift slightly, and courtesy of James Zigras, land on the massively magnificent bundle of terminated faced stibnite – aka antimonite – telegraphing the silver lightning of a hundred Excalibur swords. The undulating curves of David Friends’s own French sandstone concretion from Fontainebleau are the showstopper. This naturally occurring sculptural wonder, which at first look is a tumble of Shar Pei pups, evolves from the same white sand sourced for the glass cladding on I.M. Pei’s four glass pyramids at the Louvre – the massive structure punctuating the entrance, flanked by three smaller renditions. There are countless others: a 5’x5’ gypsum specimen disguised as a stegosaurus; a massive fossilized wall panel from Wyoming, capturing 200 skeletal fish and palm fronds in suspended animation; a rock candy confection of a 5’ x 4’ neon green fluorite and quartz; or the rare perfection of Robert Lavinsky’s 2-pound tanzanite, decisively, one of the largest exemplars of the blue-velvet gem found only on the fringes of Kilimanjaro.

Beyond lending his name and resources, Friend echoes the diligence and dedication of his predecessors who shaped the Peabody collections with shared pure intention of furthering the field of science without ego or a hidden agenda. Instead, he wants curiosity and inspiration to flourish here, to inspire young student visitors and echo the evolution of his own early passion for mineralogy. Friend’s inquiry began as an eight-year-old boy in New Rochelle, New York with the brief glint of a quartz and mica formation on a cliff face, revealed during the blasting for I-95. His bent for collection proved infectious and culminates with this testament to his passion.

This collaborative process echoes the earlier collaborative bent of Benjamin Silliman, Yale’s first professor of chemistry and mineralogy when the Peabody was in its evolution in the early 19th century. Silliman, who in exploratory travels had amassed a foundational collection for the university, actively sought out collectors looking for a permanent home for their specimens. The collaboration with George Gibbs III, a Newport RI merchant, was a mutual reward. Marked the Gibbs Cabinet, the collection was a marriage of Russian and European collections from Jean B.F. Gigot d’Orcy of France, Russian Count Grigory Kirillovich Razumovsky, and smaller groupings amassed during his extensive travels.

Silliman’s notable mark on the scientific world as the pioneer in the field of meteoritics virtually fell into his lap. Like David Friend’s discovery of the mica and crystal outcropping in a cliff wall near his childhood hometown, the Weston meteorite conveniently touched down close to the 28 year-old Silliman’s home in Fairfield, Connecticut in December of 1807. The meteorite had an explosive trajectory and laced the sky with a series of fireballs with fragments littering the landscape. Word spread fast; and always the adventurer, Silliman made the 25 miles to Weston to investigate. The meteorite strike was significant as it became the first documented fall in North America, Silliman seizing the opportunity to conduct extensive research and analysis of the rocky remains. One 36.5 lb. intact fragment finally made it into the Peabody collection courtesy of George Gibbs III.

The David Friend Hall at Yale Peabody Museum is the latest testament to the power of ongoing inquiry and the ability for art and science to make good bedfellows. In its 150th year, this esteemed odyssey of inquiry and adventure infinitely continues.

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