A Museum Within a Museum

The Wagner Free Institute of Science takes viewers back in time.


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The Wagner Free Institute of Science
1700 West Montgomery Avenue


Temple’s campus holds one of Philadelphia’s most overlooked museums: The Wagner Free Institute of Science. The institute has been open for 148 years and houses an exceptional collection. But what is impressive about the museum’s collection is that it has not been changed since the 1880s. Working almost as a time capsule, the Wager Free Institute of Science gives viewers an opportunity to experience a museum of a museum.

Walking into the Wagner’s collection is a lot like “stepping back in time,” according to Abby Sullivan, Program and Communications Coordinator. The 19th century exhibit-hall displays their collection systematically, with rows of cherry-wood cabinets arranged according to the evolution of the specimens inside them. This arrangement was decided by Joseph Leidy, a prominent figure in science during the time, arranged the collection’s specimens according to his understanding of evolution. According to Sullivan, this, “says a lot about what people thought about evolution at the time,” providing insight into the history of science.

Interestingly enough, the Wagner originally did not intend to preserve the collection. The space started off as more of a school than a museum. Founder William Wagner used the facility to teach the public about science. The institute always included education as part of their mission. But after Wagner and Leidy’s death, “a very small endowment, and private institute funding went into education, not the museum.” Because of this, the institute didn’t have money to update their exhibits, and never changed it. Sullivan tells me they ended up preserving the display “kind of by luck,” and “once we realized how amazing it was we preserved it.” In the 1990s, it became a part of the Wagner’s mission never to change the display.

So why preserve a Victorian collection? Sullivan thinks it’s a part of the Wagner’s charm, saying, and “most people really like the fact that we’re a hidden gem. It’s a really authentic experience.” She believes that the collection is definitely worth preservation the museum is also accessible because it’s free, which Sullivan says it is “probably the thing [they] love the most.”

The museum still strives to education the community and uses the Victorian display as “a springboard to talk about current issues.” “While we look like a time capsule, it is important for us to teach contemporary science,” Sullivan says, pointing out that regardless of its permanent collection, the institute, is still relevant to science and the scientists of today.

Jeana Mobley is a Sophomore Custom-Designed Major at Drexel University.

Images courtesy of the Wagner Free Institute of Science