Wagner Free Institute of Science

Address: 1700 West Montgomery Avenue
Neighborhood: Lower North Philadelphia
Year Built: 1859-1865
Architectural Style:
Architect: John McArthur, Jr.
Philadelphia Register of Historic Places:
National Register of Historic Places: Yes
Current Use:  Museum

Historical Background
Founded in 1855 by William Wagner, a notable merchant, philanthropist, and gentleman scientist of the time, who sought to offer free educational courses to all who would seek to learn about the natural world. Wagner began offering free lectures on science at his home in Elm Grove. To illustrate the lectures he drew on a collection of specimens he had gathered since his boyhood. All of the classes were offered with an open admission policy that allowed women as well as men to attend. These lectures became so popular that by 1855 he moved them first to a public hall to accommodate the rapidly growing audience, and later to its permanent home designed by Philadelphia architect John McArthur, Jr., who would go on to design Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Wagner continued to lecture and to lead the unique institution until his death in 1885. The Board of Trustees then appointed Joseph Leidy, a biologist of international reputation, to head its scientific and educational programs. Leidy’s appointment ushered in an active and productive era in which the Institute’s mission and programs were greatly expanded. Leidy’s most lasting and significant contribution to the Institute was his reorganization of the Institute’s museum. He greatly enlarged Wagner’s original collection by further field collection, purchases and other acquisitions. Leidy personally developed and supervised their reorganization into a systematic display in which specimens and cases were arranged according to Darwin’s theory of evolution, so that visitors moved from simpler to more complex organisms and through geologic time as they walked through the exhibition hall. This new display opened in 1891 and little has been altered since Leidy’s time, making the Institute an exceptional example of a Victorian era science museum.

The Institute has continued to carry out Wagner’s initial goals of offering free science courses, while also functioning as a library, lecture hall and museum. Today, the Wagner Free Institute of Science is widely recognized as one of Philadelphia’s historical treasures.

Some Community Stakeholders
Current members and staff, Temple University

Possible Artistic Uses & Limitations
The Wagner contains a main specimen hall and auditorium in pristine condition and display cases may not be altered or moved. The hall is visited by students and adults and is rather narrow, possibly a better space for temporary installations and sound pieces or interventions. The auditorium is an ideal location for performance work.

Hidden City Philadelphia has secured provisional interest and commitment to participate from the owners or stewards of prospective sites for the 2013 festival. We cannot guarantee final festival participation for any site, as many are subject to transitional forces, such as changes in ownership or stewardship, development, hazmat remediation, public-private jurisdiction, access restrictions and, in some cases, continued physical deterioration.

With that said, we have secured interest and willingness from site owners and stewards to engage in a discovery process with artists, partner organizations, and other stakeholders concerning creative projects and public engagement. The realization of any artistic project for the festival will be the result of a collaborative process with, and eventual collective approval of, Hidden City staff, advisors, community stakeholders, and site owners.

Hidden City’s staff are facilitators and advocates with the goal of bringing about a productive and mutually satisfying relationship between artists and the other stakeholders essential to any creative process located in places where art making is not a regular activity.