Museum  May 5, 2022  Cristina Juarez

Wagner Science Museum: Step into 1855 with Contemporary Courses

Photo by David Graham.

Overview shot of the gallery.

It’s not uncommon to hear the Wagner Free Institute of Science referred to as a “hidden gem of Philadelphia.” But what makes this nearly two-century-old museum so special is more than its discreet location, tucked amidst the rowhomes of North Central Philadelphia.

The Wagner was founded in 1855 to provide science education to the public through free admission and free lectures on a wide spectrum of scientific topics, and remarkably, it has continued to do so for over 160 years.

According to the Wagner’s Executive Director Susan Glassman, these institutions “almost always required election to become a member” and said memberships were costly. The Wagner was uniquely positioned at the intersection between scientific inquiry and expanding adult education, offering what would normally be exclusive higher educational scientific content in the format of free evening adult courses. Though these educational programs have kept up with the times, little else has changed at The Wagner besides the century.

courtesy of the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

Walking into the gallery is like being transported in time—to an era where evolution was a new and controversial theory and when the unfathomable biodiversity of the world remained a mystery to most. “It’s like stepping into a different atmosphere,” says Librarian Lynn Dorwaldt, describing a first-time encounter with the Wagner’s gallery. From the gargantuan, multi-story windows that flood the gallery with light, to the antique wooden floors and cases that house more than 100,000 specimens, the gallery is a snapshot of Victorian-era science: not just in appearance, but in organization and curation.

The Wagner’s many specimens (including fossils, minerals, taxidermy, skeletons, and more) are arranged systematically, meant to showcase not only the diversity of life on Earth but methods of taxonomic categorization still used by scientists today. They are arranged from oldest—about 2.5 billion years old—to most recent. The historical context of the collection remains intact, and displays the thought process of scientists at this time, notes Dorwaldt: “an attempt to categorize and put in order everything on Earth.”

Keeping such a diverse and antique group of specimens in good condition can present unique challenges. In typical natural history museums, specimens are stored in hermetically sealed and temperature-controlled cases. Their value for scientific research is dependent on such conditions, explains Don Azuma, the site manager at the Wagner. However, in this museum, the specimens have been subject to the changing seasons for over a century, and to add temperature control now would likely do more harm than good.

Site and collections manager Don Azuma cleaning large specimens. courtesy of the Wagner Free Institute of Science
courtesy of the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

Site and collections manager Don Azuma cleaning large specimens.

Site and collections manager Don Azuma cleaning large specimens. courtesy of the Wagner Free Institute of Science. (this time a fish eye, previously an alligator)
courtesy of the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

Site and collections manager Don Azuma cleaning large specimens.

For each type of specimen, there’s a different approach to preservation. For insects, cases are kept as airtight as possible to deter their living counterparts from dining on them; for taxidermy, these antique specimens are so saturated in harsh chemicals, like paradichlorobenzene, that pests steer clear. They still collect dust and require the occasional painstaking vacuum job. For wet specimens, most are suspended in alcohol, though some consist of mystery cocktails devised by donors of the past. The liquid has slowly evaporated over the years, so they get topped off every decade or so with 70% ethyl alcohol.

There are case covers for the most photosensitive specimens like coral, and strict regiments with UV-blocking shades to keep them out of direct sunlight. Some museums allocate quite a lot of money to relocate specimens to climate-controlled rooms but here, the cases are historical and part of the display. “To [move] them,” says Azuma, “would remove them from historical context.”

courtesy of the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

View of the Collection.

Though it is now a breathtaking journey into the past, the Wagner’s collections and display wouldn’t have been out of place among other nineteenth-century science museums. Few other museums from this era exist in their original form, which makes it difficult to conceptualize just how much scientific understanding has changed.

Despite its age, The Wagner manages to stay relevant among contemporary scientific audiences through educational programs. The longest-running adult educational programs continue today with semester-long courses taught in the evenings. These are led by a faculty of scientists and historians who are actively teaching and publishing in their fields. The Weeknights at the Wagner lecture series, which presents one-off talks instead of semester-long courses, also features academic speakers. In both cases, lecturers present scientific content that is topical, and may often fall below the radar of the press.

In 2018, the Wagner hosted Dr. Cynthia Hall who presented her findings on lead levels in Philadelphia soil and the role scientists can play in environmental justice. Dr. Hall encouraged students of the course to bring samples of soil from their own yards and neighborhoods to be tested—providing the tools for ongoing scientific inquiry.

The Wagner encourages this spirit of scientific inquiry through free field trips and lessons for children as well. The museum’s GeoKids LINKS program was established in 1992, partnering with neighboring schools to bring hands-on science into North Philadelphia classrooms. Glassman says that the establishment of this program is rooted in the Wagner’s quintessential mission: “opening the doors of science to populations that historically have not had access.”

The Wagner is proud to serve its North Philadelphia neighborhood and has carved its own special niche in the ever-shifting scientific community of the city.

About the Author

Cristina Juarez

Cristina Juarez is a Philadelphia-based artist, educator, and archaeologist. Their academic research focuses on pre-Columbian visual culture in Mexico and Peru, and they currently work as the Museum Educator at the Wagner Free Institute of Science. They are particularly interested in art history, archaeology, and natural science.

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