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!