Science museum

Wagner Science Museum: Discover Philadelphia’s Hidden Gem

Stepping into the gallery is like being transported back in time – to a time when evolution was a new and controversial theory and the world’s unfathomable biodiversity remained a mystery to most. “It’s like stepping into a different atmosphere,” says librarian Lynn Dorwaldt, describing a first encounter with the Wagner Gallery. From the gargantuan multi-story windows that flood the gallery with light, to the antique wooden floors and display cases that house over 100,000 specimens, the gallery is a snapshot of Victorian-era science: not just in appearance, but in organization and conservation.

Wagner’s many specimens (including fossils, minerals, taxidermy, skeletons, etc.) are arranged systematically, intended to showcase not only the diversity of life on Earth, but also methods of taxonomic categorization yet used by scientists today. They are ordered from oldest – about 2.5 billion years – to newest. The historical context of the collection remains intact, and shows the thought process of scientists at that time, notes Dorwaldt: “an attempt to categorize and put in order everything on Earth”.

Keeping such a diverse and ancient group of specimens in good condition can present unique challenges. In typical natural history museums, specimens are kept in tightly sealed, temperature-controlled cases. Their value for scientific research depends on these conditions, says Don Azuma, site manager at Wagner. However, in this museum, the specimens have been subject to the changing seasons for over a century, and adding temperature control now would probably do more harm than good.