Weird Science

A North Philly museum has educated the community for free since before the Civil War.

By Jean Luc Renault
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 25, 2007

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Bill me later: See long-dead birds and other critters for free at the Wagner.

The afternoon sun easily finds its way through the two-story windows flanking this long, creaky-floored room. Good thing it's bright, because your eyes can play tricks on you when you're surrounded by hundreds of dead animals.

"I am covered with sharp spines and I mostly eat ants. Look for me in Case 71. P_______ A_______," says the sheet of paper.

Outside sit rows of North Philadelphia houses, some run-down, some remodeled and some boarded up.

This scavenger hunt, intended for grade schoolers, is taking far longer than it should. It's leading me through the vast collection of taxonomic specimens, skeletons and dinosaur fossils that's almost more wunderkabinet than museum.

When Philadelphia merchant and hobby scientist William Wagner founded the Wagner Free Institute of Science in 1855, he'd been holding wildly popular free lectures at his estate for years.

"At the time there wasn't widespread public education in Philadelphia like there is today," explains Susan Glassman, director of the Institute, which moved into its current location in 1865, six years after Wagner's death. "Science was growing by leaps and bounds, but membership to established Philadelphia organizations like the Academy of Natural Sciences was limited to the elite. Wagner believed in free science education for all, men and women."

His mission proved enduring. Except for a few hiccups between 1861 and 1865, the Institute has never stopped providing free education since Wagner conducted the lessons from his home.

The programs evolved as the scientific community advanced. After Wagner's death in 1885, noted biologist Joseph Leidy was put in charge of the Institute's scientific and educational programs, which led to what Glassman describes as "the golden age of the Wagner." Leidy arranged the museum's specimen collection, which remains virtually unchanged in the upstairs hall.

The evolution continues. Today there's probably no better example of bringing science to a community that needs it than the Institute's role in the GeoKids program.

Graduate biology fellows from St. Joseph's University teach in-class lessons that fulfill state standards at elementary schools in the Wagner's vicinity. The program, founded in 1992, is especially important in this neighborhood because it brings the natural world into schools locked in North Philadelphia's urban grid.

Dana Semos, director of children's education, sees this as an unplanned benefit to the Institute's location. "The Wagner is dedicated to bringing free science to the community," she says, "and it just so happens these schools are in this community."

In addition to the GeoKids program, the Wagner brings in about 10,000 students a year for field trips, all free of charge--a feat accomplished through endless grant applications and tireless fundraising. But the learning doesn't end with the hands-on sessions about bugs, animals and rocks.

"The museum itself is a valuable learning tool," says Semos, remarking on, as Glassman calls it, the Institute's "museum of a museum" experience and the opportunity it provides to see the city's scientific history in person.

The Wagner also offers free weekly adult courses led by college professors at various locations across the city. These aren't just your typical community center bird-watching classes. Consider the recent forensic science course led by Penn's Janet Monge. One day's lecture covered how to recover dead bodies, and included a case study on identifying burned and decomposed corpses.

The courses don't require multiple degrees to comprehend, though they are thorough. "There's a pretty big range in science background among those attending the classes," says St. Joseph's Karen Snetselaar of her plant physiology class, which is intended for gardeners, not professional botanists.

"My goal in the class is to explain science things in a way that makes them real and useful for people who are interested in plants," she says. And unlike some of her college students, "everyone is there because they want to be there," a passion that fosters a rich learning environment, and a free one at that.

I eventually find case 71 and the porcupine anteater within. The little creature is long dead, unlike the living fossil that's the Wagner.

The Institute finds a delicate balance between being an unchanged relic of the past and being a continually evolving bastion of free community education.

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