The Wagner: a Hat-trick of a Museum

The Wagner Free Institute of Science’s is a living institution with a mission. This mission has been the same for well over a hundred years: free science education for the people of Philadelphia.

Inside the Victorian building, you can find a large lecture hall and an even larger exhibition hall. The exhibition hall is home to a expansive natural history museum which holds a wide array of minerals, rocks, taxidermy, and fossils (using our previous formula established by Kulick, this is what the museum collects). The over 100,000 objects are displayed in systematically-arranged cases. Each case houses multiple groups of various groups of the animal kingdom. They also include certain natural habitats for the creatures (i.e, some of the birds have nests or branches). The museum offers a visceral experience of stepping back in time. It is both a natural history museum and a living history museum.

This living history experience carries throughout the entire building. The lecture hall boasts the seats that transport you back into Victorian Philadelphia. Steven Conn believes the Wagner is the best place “to see—to feel—the particular impulses that drove Philadelphians to build cultural institutions in the nineteenth century.” In this case, I believe the third part of Kulick’s equation comes into play: teaching. The Wagner’s initial introduction served the purpose of free education for the working people of Philadelphia.

Now, the Wagner is on a precipice. It has served its mission statement for almost 160 years, but as the cherry-and-white monster of Temple University continues to gobble up the surrounding area, it is hard to imagine what the future of the Wagner could look like. Perhaps, it could be incorporated into Temple’s world; however, the only outcome I can see from this approach would be the monetization of the wonders inside the building—something William Wagner would certainly disapprove of. Conn calls the Wagner’s dedication to its mission “heroic” and I couldn’t agree more. To fulfill its mission, I believe the Wagner must continue to teach as it does. As Temple’s expansion continues, maybe the lecture hall could be used as a space for science students, or guest speakers for the school. But, the focus should remain on the free programs that are offered to the surrounding area’s schools.

The Wagner remains a cultural institution. It has surpassed its original function of education hall for Philadelphia’s people and evolved into a natural history museum, and now a living history museum of Victorian architecture. What the future holds? Who knows, but for now, I’d say William Wagner would be pleased with his institution of education’s present.


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