If you are in town for a few days and love museums, then The Wagner Free Institute of Science Museum is one place you definitely have to visit. While Philadelphia has its fair share of museums, this is hands down its best-hidden gem. The museum is full of natural history collections that include dinosaur bones, shells, insects, minerals and rocks, fossils, mammals, mounted birds and an impressive saber-toothed tiger, the first discovered in America from an 1886 expedition. The collection was assembled by the founder of the Institute William Wagner in the 1890s and the whole institute feels like it is frozen in time. Not much has changed since then with the specimens sitting elegantly in their cases and the building still showcasing its Victorian-era charm.
The Wagner Institute has more than 100,000 specimens from all branches of the natural world. Among its exhibits include the founder’s mineral collection that he got from collection sites in American and European localities. Also on display are an entomological collection, mounted animal skeletons, birds, skins, skulls and shells from all over the globe on display. The most prominent fossils come from the American Mid Atlantic, Northeast and South regions as well as the Caribbean. Arranged for study, the specimens sit in their elegant cherry wood cases, where they still retain the original curator’s labels written by hand in the 1880s. Systematically arranged, it is great if you are just looking for an amazing experience for the kids or if you need to do some scholarly research.
The History of the Museum
The museum was founded in 1855 by William Wagner a philanthropist, merchant and gentleman scientist, who wanted to provide educational courses to all that were interested in the natural sciences. A collector since childhood, he would provide lectures that he illustrated with specimens he had collected over the years. Initially offered from his home in Elm Grove, the lectures were soon so popular that he moved them to the present location in 1855.
Wagner led the Institute and continued to lecture until his death in 1885. His successor was Joseph Leidy a biologist with an international reputation for scientific research and leading educational programs. Leidy espoused the values of the founder, even as he expanded its programs and mission. He also enlarged the museum’s collection through purchases, field collection, and other acquisitions. It was Leidy who was responsible for the systematic organization of the cases and specimens according to Darwin’s theory of evolution. The new display opened its doors in 1891 and little has changed since then as the museum continues to hold onto it Victorian roots.
Wagner Free Institute of Science continues to espouse Wagner’s original goals of functioning as a museum, lecture hall, library while also offering free science courses. It continues to amaze both researchers and the public alike with its excellent collections. It is widely recognized as one of Philadelphia’s greatest treasures.
When Can You Visit and How it Works
The museum is open for visitors Tuesday to Friday from 9 am to 4 pm. Organized groups or school trips of more than six need to call in advance to book reservations by calling 215-763-6529, ext. 17. You will also need to call and make reservations if you are looking to do research that will require special access to the specimens. Admission is free though you are encouraged to make donations if you can.
As part of its education program, the Institute provides guided tours of the museum and lessons mostly in the natural sciences. These would be great for science clubs, camps, homeschool groups, scout troops, and after-school programs. However, if you are interested in guided tours you need to make an appointment. The tours typically include slide presentations in the very lecture halls where Margaret Mead, Edward Drinker Cope, and Joseph Leidy once taught. You will also be guided through the various museum exhibits and the reference library.
Directions to the Wagner Free Institute of Science
The Museum is on 1700 W Montgomery Ave Philadelphia, PA 19121. The most significant landmark is the Temple University complex which is walking distance from the institute. While the area around the museum is not that great recreationally given that it is quite out of the way, just around the corner is Temple University where the streets are full of college kids and sushi bars. Right across the museum is a police station and Chipotle Mexican Grill just down the road near the intersection with N11th Street where the Liacouras Center is located. The George Washington Carver High School is also a few blocks away on N. 17th Street.
To get to the location, I would suggest an Uber or cab which will drop you right at the address. You can also ride the subway from City Hall, which will drop you off at Cecil B. Moore station, which is walking distance from the museum.
If you are driving from City Hall it is about 2.4 miles to the museum. Starting from the junction of 13th Street head North on North Juniper Street for about 305 feet and then take a left turn into John F Kennedy Boulevard. In about 250 feet take a right turn into N. Broad Street, the Masonic Temple will be on your right. Drive straight ahead for 1.7 miles right across the Interstate 676 and look out for Columbia North YMCA on your left, once you spot it, your turn should be two blocks away. Take a left turn into W. Oxford Street, the AMC Broad Street at the Junction should be on your right and Rite Aid on your left. Drive to N. 18th Street and take a right turn. Cecil B. Moore Avenue is halfway to your next turn. Turn right on the next cross street into W. Montgomery Avenue, the Institute will be about 300 feet from the turn on the right side.
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To get to our offices from the Wagner Free Institute, head East on Montgomery Avenue for about 0.3 miles to the Junction with N. Broad Street. The Liacouras Center will be on your right and the Temple University Campus Rec on the left. Take a right into the N. Broad Street and drive for about 2 miles. Once you have passed the crossover at Race Street watch out for the MacDonald on the right and after the next crossover with Arch Street, take a right turn into John F. Kennedy Boulevard and left into N. 15th Street. Take a left turn into S. Penn Square then a right at the Ritz Carlton into S Broad Street. Take a right turn on the second crossover into Sansom Street. Our offices will be on the right.
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