Speaking at the Wagner

The Wagner looms over 17th and Montgomery.

Yesterday I had the chance to visit The Wagner Free Institute of Science and to speak to a group of students from Drexel University. As part of a class on the history of museums, they had spent considerable time at the Academy of Natural Sciences—last year Drexel acquired (the official term is became affiliated with) the Academy. A visit to the Wagner is a bit of a shift. In the first instance, the Wagner is in a very different part of town. Whereas the Academy is on the parkway, next to the Franklin Institute and across from the Free Library, the Wagner is in a largely residential neighborhood in north Philadelphia. And unlike the Academy, which still bridges the worlds of scientific research and museum display, the Wagner has had to relinquish its scientific efforts and concentrates now on being a “museum of a museum.” Even in its heyday the Wagner was very different from the Academy—it had different goals and served a different demographic.

The Wagner “is not a reflection of the past but the past itself.”

Stepping into the Wagner feels like stepping into the past. As the webpage says, the museum “is not a reflection of the past but the past itself.” The institute was founded in 1855 by William Wagner, a wealthy merchant who had amassed a large collection of natural specimens. He established his institute to bring science education to the masses. Admission and lectures were and remain free, and all lectures were held at times when working Philadelphians could attend. Initially, he housed his collection and held his lectures in his home. As his collections and his audiences grew, he had to find a new place for both. The current building was built in 1865. Later the first branch of the Free Library system in Philadelphia opened at the Wagner.

Famously, Joseph Leidy became the director of the Wagner in 1885, when William Wagner died. Leidy supported original research, which was published in the institute’s journal, The Transactions of the Wagner Free Institute of Science, and reorganized the collections. Leidy used the collection to make a visible and physical argument for evolution. He grouped the organisms according to type and arranged them in cases of increasing complexity. He arranged the fossils according to their age. The result is a two-fold argument for evolution. In one half visitors encounter increasingly complex organisms. In the other half visitors move through geological time.

Knowing that Leidy reorganized the collection reveals how museums shape knowledge and provides a way to think about about how and why Leidy’s argument for evolution would have been compelling, about how artifacts deliberately arranged make an argument more powerful or persuasive. At first glance, the arrangement of artifacts seems natural—students today typically show up accepting some form of evolution, even if they can’t articulate it clearly. The challenge is getting students to understand that in reorganizing the collection Leidy redefined the important relationships between artifacts—what those artifact meant.

One way students can begin to see the deliberateness of the collection is by opening the drawers under the display cases. In a sense, the drawers contain the superfluous artifacts. They are the Wagner’s stores. Opening these drawers reveals the chaotic nature of unorganized artifacts and, consequently, the artificiality of organized specimens. Frequently the items in the drawers bear little relationship to those displayed in the case and have fascinating notes on scraps of paper identifying the objects. A number of drawers contain items “from Wagner’s original collection” that “have not been cataloged.” I try to get students to think about how the objects in the cases can be related to those in the drawers and why somebody chose to display some of the objects and not others and what would happen if everything were on display?

A visit to the Wagner is always a poignant reminder of the amount of effort and the resources needed to maintain a collection. One reason the Wagner is “the past itself” is because its endowment has never been sufficient to keep it up to date. It is a museum of a museum because its development ossified in the late 19th or early 20th century, when resources were too constrained to enable it to continue developing. It is an endearing image of the past because it couldn’t continue to be a reflection of the present.