Amassing an impressive collection of scientific specimens from his childhood into his adulthood when he traveled the world as an agent for the famous Stephen Girard, William Wagner started giving free science lectures from his home in the 1850’s. With his lectures becoming more popular year after year Wager moved his collection to a public hall and then permanently to North Philadelphia.
The Wagner Free Institute of Science is coolest place that no one has ever heard of. Tucked quietly behind a shrub-lined fence at the corner of 17th and Montgomery there is a gorgeous building that seems very out of place. Finished in 1865, the building was designed by John McArthur; he later went on to design some little building called City Hall. Wagner held the belief that science education should be available to everyone (including women!) and spent the entirety of his later life lecturing at the Institute. Dr. Joseph Leidy took the helm following Wagner’s death and ushered in a new era of success for the Institute, making it one of the most respected institutions in Philadelphia public education.
Little has been changed at the museum since 1891 when Leidy first organized the specimens into a more systematic display and recent preservation efforts have the building and collection looking as if they had been locked away for the past century. The museum is open to the general public from 9-4 on Tuesday through Friday when you’ll often find classes of children enjoying interactive lessons in the building’s beautiful lecture hall. Adult evening courses in the lecture hall are still offered in the spirit of the museum’s origins.
The real magic is upstairs in the display cases. One of the largest systematically arranged collections in the country, designed perfectly for study, more than 100,000 specimens lie waiting to awe the visitors who have been lucky enough to discover this Philly treasure. Days could be lost gazing at the wonders held in the cherry wood cases, so if you make sure you’ve got plenty of time. The museum includes on of the oldest mineral collections in nation, an impressive fossil collection and thousands of animal skeletons, skulls and skins. Check out some of these favorites: the very menacing flying fox, stunning amethysts and agate from Brazil, the crowd pleasing porcupine fish, a piece of Azurite with Malachite that looks like a screen shot from Google Earth, a vulpine phalanger that looks more mischievous than Alfred E. Newman and an American toad who could have been Jabba the Hut’s stunt double.
As the museum’s name dictates, admission is free, although donations are greatly appreciated to keep this scientific jewel intact.