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Dream Drives: Victorian-era Science At Wagner Free Institute

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — In 1855, Philadelphia-based biologists and entomologists gathered their finds and opened a natural history museum that today stands nearly unchanged: The Wagner Free Institute of Science.

“Our mission is public education and science,” said executive director Susan Glassman.

Founder William Wagner was a pioneer in natural history, working with scientists around the world to collect specimens of every species of mammal, reptile, and bug they could find. They established the museum in the heart of North Philadelphia.

“So we have rocks and minerals and fossils and shells and sea life, and then a lot of mammals and birds, mounted skeletons and skins,” Glassman said.

“We have a very large collection of insects, the entomology section. These were all collected in the 1880s and 1890s,” Glassman said. The collection is still displayed as it was in the late 1800s, down to the handwritten notes.

They also have bones of a Camarasaurus, a dinosaur closely related to the Brontosaurus.

“These are just some thigh bones, some vertebrae, some part of the pelvis. They’re enormously heavy and they were collected in the 1870s,” Glassman said.

The elegant cases were designed by Philadelphia biologist Joseph Leidy in the 1880s. He arranged the specimens in a pattern that followed Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. “This installation reflects those new ideas about the relationship of species in the natural world,” Glassman said.

Wagner considered it a civic duty to let people visit the collection for free. “William Wagner started offering classes at night so working people could come. This is before most people had formal education,” Glassman said.

The Wagner Free Institute is still free for both current scientists and future ones.

“We have programs for both children and adults,” said Aaron Lawson, who grew up in Philadelphia and now is a children’s educator. “Science is for everyone. That’s exactly what our mission was when this place was founded: science is for everybody.”

The Wagner Free Institute is at 1700 West Montgomery Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19121.

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