Friday, February 04, 2011

Field Trip!

Last week we celebrated Jim's birthday. Depending on whom you ask my husband is now either 41 or 49… (long story). If you subscribe to the idea of "love languages", I would say that Jim's love language is "Doing Stuff Together", with a strong accent on "Historical Interest", otherwise known as, "Old Stuff is the Best Stuff". So instead of a pile of gifts, we gave Jim a field trip day into Philadelphia. We live so close to this city which is filled to the brim with "Interesting Stuff", "Old Stuff", and "Interesting Old Stuff", the kids and I figured we'd be able to find something just right for Jim. With a little bit of internet research I found a museum in Philly which fit the bill perfectly.

The Wagner Free Institute of Science was established in the 1880s and has maintained the original "systematic" scheme for scientific study which was typical of the Victorian era. Born out of the varied interests of William Wagner, a collector who enjoyed sharing what he learned with others, a building for his collection was built across the street from his home in the city, (presumably when his wife had had enough of dusting around the skeletons and bits of fossils). The museum reflects exactly what a Victorian Era museum of science would have looked like, with fossils, rocks, minerals, gems, insects, taxidermied animals and skeletons from all over the world displayed in glass cases, their handwritten labels reflecting the Latin names, common names, and places of origin. Some of the countries from which the specimens originated are no longer to be found on a world map. Saxony and Bohemia, for example, are no longer sovereign states in Europe. And yet here are relics labeled from these places, evidence of a bygone era, when a fossil hunter across the sea donated or sold his rocks to this little museum in Philadelphia.

After brunch at a Diner in South Philly, we found the Institute in what is no longer a "nice" area of town. Not the worst, to be sure, but once we found a parking space on the street, (after "sledding" the car around the block two or three times) and made our way through the piles of unshoveled snow on the sidewalk, we found the door of the museum to be locked and had to ring a bell for admittance. Once we were let indoors by a smiling young volunteer she told us that we'd need to have someone let us back out again, since the doors stay locked at all times. She gave us a brief introduction of the history of the museum before directing us to the auditorium to see how it was set up for lectures on science, just as it would have been in the 1800s, (and which they still give today). There were chalkboards with explanations written on them as well as various specimens from the collection set on tables at the front of the hall, (including the skull of a saber-toothed tiger). The wood and cast iron folding chairs were all polished by long years of use and I couldn't help but wonder how many of the people who sat in that room listening to the lectures had gone on to pursue careers in science or exploration.

We were not the only people in the museum that day. There were also Art students from a couple of the local colleges who had come to sketch various specimens. I had seen on the website that photography is strictly forbidden- phooey- but sketch pads and pencils are welcome, (no ink). One girl was studying a fossilized lobster, others were tracing out the forms of birds of every shape and size. Another group of students arrived before we left, and we overheard their instructor telling them to stick with drawing the skeletal forms and not the animals "fleshed out" by taxidermy. The choices left to them were still quite numerous. From the skeletons of a buffalo and a horse to a tiny little hummingbird, there were many from which to choose. Charles Darwin's theories must have come into vogue sometime around the founding of the Institute, because one display case had the skeletons of a monkey, a gorilla, a chimpanzee, and a human lined up in a row, (Lucy was missing).

We wandered slowly for hours looking into the displays. The kids were genuinely enjoying the museum as much as Jim was. I was pretty tickled because in our history studies we are about to enter the Victorian Era, and will soon be reading about the time period in which the Wagner collection was first assembled. Having seen this will give us a framework as we read further on the time period.

On our drive home we decided that we ought to build some proper display cases for our own collection of "Interesting Old Stuff". We already have a number of neat things which we have collected from around the world in our own travels. From bullets which Jim found at Gettysburg to bits of petrified wood which he brought home from Egypt way back when he was in the Army, our collection is well on its way. We could start our own museum. Jim and William Wagner would have been great friends….

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