The Academy of Natural Sciences at 200

March 27, 2012 • 7:52 am

by Greg Mayer

This year is the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the oldest natural history museum in the United States. Although now surpassed in size by some later-founded institutions, it is still one of the most important natural history museums in America, rich in types and other historically important specimens, and home to such luminaries as the paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope  in the 19th century and Ted Daeschler today. The Academy is celebrating its bicentennial with special exhibitions and web features, and the publication of a book, A Glorious Enterprise, by R.M. Peck and M.T. Stroud, with photographs by Rosamund Purcell. The New York Times has an article by Cornelia Dean, with a selection of images by Purcell and from the Academy’s archives and library, and further images can be seen at the University of Pennsylvania Press website (publishers of the book).

Two species of musk parrot from Fiji, painted by Titian Peale of the United States Exploring Expedition. Peale was a Philadelphia naturalist whose family had it's own museum, the Peale Museum; some of his collections, however, went to the Academy.

We’ve done museum reviews and discussed the merits of varying approaches to exhibition, notably the ‘interactive’ vs. ‘cabinet’ styles, here at WEIT a number times (see, for example here, here, here, here and here). Natural history museums grew out of the older “cabinets of curiosities”, and the original Academy exhibits were in this style (which is not quite the same as the newer style I’ve taken to calling the ‘cabinet’ style, which is influenced by the older tradition). Although I’ve been to the Academy several times, it has always been for research in the collections (which, at most natural history museums, vastly outnumber the specimens on display, and form the basis of the museum’s scientific mission), and unfortunately, I’ve never gotten to take more than a cursory walk through the exhibits. So, I should go to see the exhibits– and so should you!

10 thoughts on “The Academy of Natural Sciences at 200

  1. Not only did Cope send specimens there, but he sent the Type Specimen for /homo sapiens/ there too. In fact, Cope IS the type specimin for humans, and his body is apparently preserved at the Academy. I heard that they actually lost his skull during a photoshoot not too long ago (have to wonder how a human skull gets lost like that, while still inside a museum).

    1. The type specimen of Homo sapiens is Carl von Linne (or Linnaeus), by subsequent designation of Stearn (1959). The idea that Cope is the type specimen seems to be a joke/hoax that got out of hand. We’ve covered the story rather thoroughly in an earlier post here at WEIT.


  2. It’s kind of frustrating going to a museum with few fossils especially when most of them are kept away for research (in locked cupboards)

  3. Happy Birthday to the Academy of Natural Sciences! When I was a boy growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950s I used to go down to Logan Circle after school. Mostly to read in the Free Library of Philadelphia (the main branch of the city library system). When I had the cash I would sometimes go to the Franklin Institute, and look through the glass window from the math exhibit into their computer room, at the Univac II at work.

    But more often I went to the Academy of Natural Sciences, where I loved some of the dioramas with their illusion of being elsewhere in the world, and also I loved to look at the dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs in the main hall. I also went on some excursions organized by them. I have never thanked them quite enough.

    1. I have to ditto Joe Felsenstein’s comment. I, too, grew up in Philadelphia and looked forward to the field trips to the Academy almost as if they were a day of hooky. The dioramas and dinosaurs help me find my own career passions, just as they have for many of our colleagues at institutions worldwide. Museums deserve our thanks and support.
      I’m also privileged to continue an association to the ANSP through my good friend and colleague Ted Daeschler.

      1. Thanks to Joe and Neil, whose opinions are made special since they’re two of the foremost evolutionary biologists around. I knew of Neil’s link to Philly, but not Joe’s. Hope to see you there sometime.

        p.s. I have the pleasure of working at the Academy, in the Botany Department.

  4. Thanks for the Shout Out! I have the honor of working at the museum. The exhibit is worth coming to see!

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