The Wagner Free Institute of Science
1700 West Montgomery Avenue Philadelphia, PA 19121
Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 9am-4pm
For all our pictures visit our flickr page
“The boy who loved rocks,” William Wagner is responsible for the Wagner Free Institute of Science, which sits nearly untouched since the 19th century behind Temple University’s campus. Wagner’s boyhood rock collection changed when his business took him around the world, where he pursued his hobby of collecting scientific specimens. Wagner went from giving free lectures out of his home to owning a considerable sized collection which required its own museum. After a few locations Wagner built, what is known as the Wagner Free Institute of Science, on his family farm land north of the city a.k.a 1700 Montgomery Street which is now Temple’s campus.
The considerable collection was started by William Wagner and expanded by his predecessor Joseph Leidy. The collection includes animal taxidermy, rocks, minerals, fossils, and dinosaur bones. That concludes the education portion of my review. Now on to the good stuff.
Wagner Free Institute is big, old, and beautiful. The doors creak, the wood is dark, and the furniture is heavy and polished. The Wagner is frozen in time. It is one of those places that you can actually get a sense of the Philadelphians that have come in its doors centuries before you and your wily 5-year-old. At the end of the dark and moody entrance hallway the entire space opens up into a lecture hall that looks like it has been transported from the Clive Owen series KNICK. With its theater in-the-round design you literally expect someone to bring out a body and start operating.
Next stop is upstairs to see the collection. The collection that started it all. As soon as you get to the top of the stairs and step into the exhibit hall you see a room flooded with light and row after row of cherry-wood glass cabinets from the 1880s. You are now officially in a Victorian Science Museum.
The collection is arranged from simple to complex in one of the first efforts to display specimens according to the theory of evolution.
Highlights include William Wagner’s personal mineral collection – one of the oldest in the country – and his fossil collection, representing many important European and American localities and collecting sites of the nineteenth century. The mounted skeletons, skulls and skins represent species from around the globe, including many that are now endangered. The extensive regional entomology collection is notable for its arrangement, which includes the original handwritten curator’s labels.
source: Wagner Free Institute of Science Website
Ollie (age: 5) and I explored the exhibit hall and all it had to offer a curious little boy. The highlights of the collection for us were the dolphin skeleton, draught horse, extinct saber tooth tiger skull, saiga antelope, sea-lion, African elephant skull and the ape, monkey and human skeleton comparisons. The one case also does a very simple step-by-step of how to taxidermy a squirrel.
For me the room and each exhibit case is visually beautiful. The amazing and giant coral, lobsters and even the rows and rows of delicate white moths. If Martha Stewart had an insanely large bug collection it would look like this. The Wagner does have prepared scavenger hunts for children that are visiting. If you have a Pre-K aged child with you ask at the front for the picture scavenger hunt.
- Good To Know:
The Wagner is not open on the weekends. This is due to a lack of funding. However a few times a year they do hold family events on the weekend so make sure you take advantage of those.
The museum is self guided. You ring the bell to be let in and then the exploring is up to you.
Photography is not allowed in the main exhibit hall.
Don’t bring a stroller. The 19th century did not plan for that.
I think, depending on the child, you could spend a solid hour at the Wagner.
Parking in the neighborhood is free with a 2 hour max.
The Wagner was started in an effort to offer free scientific education to the working public. It’s mission has not changed and although the Wagner has limited hours (especially for working families) admission is still free. Wagner still runs lectures in the original lecture hall. Check out their website for their adult and kids events.
Remember it all started with rocks so maybe next time I hear that familiar clank in the washing machine because I didn’t check the boy’s pockets I will remember W. Wagner and let it slide.