Wagner Free Institute of Science

Butterflies/Moths at Wagner Free Institute of Science
Butterflies/Moths at Wagner Free Institute of Science

One hundred thousand fossils, dinosaur bones, seashells, fish, insects, rocks, minerals and creepy stuffed birds and mammals. The Wagner Free Institute of Science of Philadelphia is a 19th century natural science museum that is a step back into the Victorian era, the heyday for amateur naturalist.

Specimen of the Month! August 2011. Courtesy Wagner Free Institute
Specimen of the Month! August 2011. Courtesy Wagner Free Institute

The Institute’s founder founder William Wagner, a gentlemen (read: amateur) scientist and collector of natural history specimens, opened the museum in 1865. Wagner opened the Institute to provide free science education for the people of Philadelphia, and it still does.

Wagner Free Institute of Science
Wagner Free Institute of Science

I have heard about his museum for at least twenty years, and a visit was on my “must-do” list for this summer. The Institute is located several city streets west of Temple University’s main campus.  The building is as Victorian as you can get and stepping into the foyer is stepping back into 1865. The lecture hall will delight history buffs with its original seats and lecture desk.

Lecture hall, photograph by Tom Crane. Wagner Free Institute of Science
Lecture hall, photograph by Tom Crane. Wagner Free Institute of Science

I could tell you the story of the founding of the place, but I will save that space and direct you to the history on the institute’s website. You can not take photographs inside the museum but visit the website and the Institute’s Flickr photostream.

The Collection

On the second floor (no elevator, lifts, etc.) is a long exhibit hall filled from one end to the other with glass display cases. These cases contain Mr. Wagner’s original natural history collections and additions purchased later. This is the area where you will find the thousands of fossils, dinosaur bones, seashells, rocks, minerals and creepy stuffed birds and mammals. And don’t forgot to pull out the drawers beneath the glass cases. The drawers hold even more specimens.

Wagner Free Institute Museum, exhibit hall.
Wagner Free Institute Museum, exhibit hall.
Specimen of the month! June 2011, Saber Tooth Cat
Specimen of the month! June 2011, Saber Tooth Cat

If you like to sketch, Fridays, 1 pm – 4pm are times set aside for artists to use the collection. School groups are not scheduled at those times. Check the website for the sketching policy.

The fascinating collection of specimens creeped me out at the same time. Kids will get a kick out of the place.

Elephant Skulls. Photo courtesy of Wagner Institute of Science
Elephant Skulls. Photo courtesy of Wagner Institute of Science

If you go, pick a cool day. Being an authentic Victorian building there is no air conditioning to keep you cool. And the building is not handicap accessible either.

Birds. Photo courtesy of Wagner Institute of Science
Birds. Photo courtesy of Wagner Institute of Science

The Institute sponsors introductory college-level lecture courses and programs for adults on various topics, given by scientists. Margaret Mead taught here.

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The basic info:

Wagner Free Institute of Science
1700 West Montgomery Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19121
telephone: 215.763.6529
www. wagnerfreeinstitute.org

Hours: Tuesday – Friday, 9 am – 4 pm and specially scheduled programs. Call for group tour reservations or special program schedule.

Please note the Institute will close Monday, August 22, 2011 to Monday, September 5, 2011 for summer break.

Admission: The entrance fee is a suggested donation of $8.00 for museum visitors. See the website for additional information.
Parking: on street near Institute or Temple University’s Liacouras Center on 15th street.
Public transportation: The Broad Street subway (stop: Cecil B Moore/Temple University) or the #2 bus.

2 comments

  1. I live in Willow Grove and cannot believe that I have never visited this museum. I will take a trip there as soon as it reopens in September. Thanks for this article.

    • You and me both. My shame is I knew about it, attended Temple University a couple blocks away for four years and took twenty years to get off my back side and go.

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