The Wagner is like no other museum I have visited in Philadelphia so far. Founded by William Wagner in the 1850s, the 150-year-old building in Northern Philadelphia is home to the Wagner Free Institute of Science. William Wagner sought to create an institution that would provide free and accessible education for Philadelphia’s working-class adults. The current Wagner Free Institute of Science still looks almost exactly as I did when William Wagner died in 1885 and still creates programming for accessible education. The institution has been described as a “museum of a museum” and walking through the door can feel like stepping back in history. In fact, the museum has received National Historic Landmark status and works to preserve the building and collection to their late nineteenth century status.
While the auditorium is an impressive space with many specimens to explore, it is the collection on the second floor that really steals the show. Rows upon rows of cases fill the entire space with a massive collection. There are items ranging from miniscule ticks to mineral samples to the skulls of African Bull Elephants. Tucked away in the far back corner of the collection space is one of the larger specimens in the collection. Waiting for curious visitors to find are the fossilized bones of a dinosaur! For me, finding the fossils was an amazing experience. I had a small idea that they were back there but was not prepared for the size of them. It felt like a scavenger hunt with an amazing prize at the end.
Surrounded by a railing, the dinosaur fossils are large and carry a presence. The display props up the bones at an angle to be viewed better and includes a small diagram that highlights where on the dinosaur skeleton these bones are from. Being able to place the individual bones displayed here was extremely helpful for viewing and contextualizing them. While there is some description with a small sign labeling them with background information, it does not tell us how the museum came into possession of them or when they were found. I appreciated the additional resources but found that I as a viewer had to do a lot of extra work to understand what I was looking at.
The interpretation of the fossilized dinosaur bones is very interesting and unique to the Wagner. While the display labels the specimen as a Brontosaurus excelsus or “thunder lizard”, the fossils actually belong to a dinosaur known as the Camarasaurus. The Brontosaurus has faced issues of validity since its discovery by paleontologist Othneil Charles Marsh in 1879. Its name was discarded in 1903 when it was determined that the specimen discovered actually belonged to a dinosaur grouping already established. The name was so popular though that it has stuck in the minds of people for over a hundred years and recently some scientists have argued for its comeback.
The Brontosaurus is a rare find for paleontologists but Camarasaurus fossils are actually incredibly common to find. According to one of the Wagner’s educators, the institution’s fossil became part of the collection in the 1890s. This was before paleontologists stopped classifying bones as Brontosaurus excelsus and therefore was labeled that way in 1890. It seems like a very simple fix to make but because of the Wagner’s designation as a National Historic Landmark, the label cannot be changed. The institution is committed to maintaining the space and collection as it was around William Wagner’s death and this includes now incorrect labeling of specimens.
While I understand the reasoning and find it so interesting, I wonder how this hinders the museum’s educational goals. Would it be possible to add an additional label explaining the situation? Does that violate the landmark designation? Perhaps this is an opportunity for an educational program that could explore this and other cases of wrong labeling in the collection. Partnering with scientists from local universities, the Wagner could create a “misinformation” tour and embrace the institute’s inability to update information. This way the public could learn about the collection as it was in the late nineteenth century and as it is now. The purpose of the Wagner’s collection has always been to educate and a tour exploring the ways taxonomy has evolved would continue to fulfill that mission. Further, this program has the feel of a “behind the scenes” tour and would be attractive to new and repeat visitors of the Wagner.
The Wagner Free Institute of Science is truly a unique experience to be had in Philadelphia. I’m excited to return because I know there are still treasures to be found in that collection. If you find yourself in Northern Philadelphia I highly recommend visiting the collection and feeling the history there!