Secret Philly

The Wagner Free Institute: Inside the nearly hidden science museum right on Temple’s doorstep

Step inside, and step back in time to when rich businessmen moonlighted as collectors of prehistoric treasure.

Wagner outside

Welcome to Secret Philly, an occasional series in which Billy Penn will visit hidden or exclusive places in Philadelphia and write about them.

Nineteen years before the state broke ground on Temple University, William Wagner opened his own educational building a few blocks away so he could store the thousands of specimens he’d collected from lands ranging from New Jersey to Polynesia. He obtained everything from the smallest insects to the fossil of a saber-tooth tiger.  

Today, everything is still there and it survives as The Wagner Free Institute of Science. His building is 150 years old, and you can’t miss it if you’re walking by on Montgomery Avenue. That’s part of the problem, of course. A couple miles away from the Philadelphia’s premier museums on the Parkway and not amongst many of the others in Center City, The Wagner Institute keeps a low profile. But inside, you’ll find one of Philadelphia’s least-known but cool museums.  

Wagner and the museum

You’d think William Wagner was a scientist. He did collect and organize a bunch animals. But it was actually just his hobby. Wagner worked as a businessman and had enough money and spare time to devote to traveling the world and building and building on his exotic collection. He also happened to be a believer in educating others about science. This was a time when public higher education had yet to proliferate to a great extent. Rich people like him could travel the world and see the great museums, but doors were closed to average people. After a one-and-half year honeymoon in Europe and visiting many great museums, Wagner decided to open his own institute.

Back then, its foremost purpose was teaching and much of that happened in this lecture hall that today is mostly unchanged.

Wagner lecture hall
Mark Dent/Billy Penn

In this room, scientists explained many of the specimens Wagner collected. The lecture room features a 1914 lantern slide projector, and earlier this month the Wagner Institute held an event with other museums in which they displayed slides from decades ago. The Institute usually has multiple events in the lecture hall each week. Per Wagner’s original mission, lectures and admission is free, though donations are encouraged. Guided tours cost $15.   

Wagner encountered few problems with his institute, which at the time was the tallest building . The only people who might have disliked it were baseball players. One of Philadelphia’s first baseball fields was located adjacent to Wagner’s property. Semipro teams would often hit balls onto his lawn. Wagner was never in the mood to give them back.  

When Wagner died, Joseph Leidy took over. Leidy had gained international renown as an early promoter and adopter of Darwinism and as a paleontologist. He found the fossilized skeleton of a Hadrosaurus dinosaur in South Jersey.  

Leidy Wagner
Mark Dent/Billy Penn

Leidy arranged Wagner’s collection in the way that is still displayed today. He also emphasized displaying specimens that represented tenets of Darwinism, mainly by having species that were highly evolved to their habitats.   

Inside the collection

Wagner wide shot
Mark Dent/Billy Penn

Temple students and alumni, you’re going to love the centerpiece of Wagner’s main collection. 

Draft Horse Wagner
Mark Dent/Billy Penn

It’s known as a draft horse. As in Draft Horse, the name of that classy restaurant/bar located a few blocks away. At an institute featuring exotic creatures from all over the planet, it seems a bit weird for the centerpiece to be a common horse, but it was intended. Leidy wanted working class people to feel comfortable. When they walked in, they could see the skeleton of a horse and not feel like complete outsiders.

The collection features everything from rocks and minerals to stuffed carcasses or bones of common and exotic animals. There are gemstones and shells, sloths and foxes, and a duck-billed platypus. There are extinct species like the ivory-billed woodpecker and the saber-tooth tiger. Most everything has been there for more than 100 years.

Saiga antelope
Mark Dent/Billy Penn
Mark Dent/Billy Penn

Some of the drawers beneath the many specimens open, too. But be careful. You might end up opening one and find several pigeons. 

Mark Dent/Billy Penn

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