Completed in 1865, The Wagner is a perfectly preserved Victorian gem – from its lecture hall to its gallery of specimens. The institute itself was founded in 1852 by William Wagner, a local merchant who believed science education should be available to everyone (even women!) and began offering free lectures in his home using his collection of specimens (many of which he acquired during his travels around the world working as an agent for Stephen Girard -who went on to open his own free educational institution Yellow Fever, Civil Rights and The Richest Man in America – The Stephen Girard Collection). Attendance outgrew the space, and Wagner hired an architect (who would later go on to design Philadelphia’s City Hall) to design this new building, which included museum space and a large lecture hall for his education programs.

After Wagner’s death, the institute appointed the renowned Philadelphian Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), father of American vertebrate paleontology and one of the great American scientists of the Victorian-era, to run its scientific and educational programs. Leidy was responsible for expanding the collections and organizing the museum according to Darwin’s theory of evolution. His museum display opened in 1891, and remains little changed today, with wooden cabinets housing over 100,000 specimens of fossils, taxidermy, insects, eggs, skeletons, nests, and shells (many of which still have their original labels).

Note: Leidy was a long time, influential member of The Academy of Natural Science, which has a display in the paleontology room detailing some of his numerous discoveries:

They also have his collection of hand-drawn teaching posters:

Prints from Audubon’s “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America” line the walls.

Today, this historic museum continues to provide free science education through open houses (check out their first Saturday events), evening lectures, and school programs. My kids always enjoyed the scavenger hunts through the galleries that focused on the day’s topic. Several of these can usually be found on a table by the steps in the museum.

Open weekdays only, except for special programs. 1700 West Montgomery Avenue