The Wagner Free Institute of Science does not possess the notorious stairway of the Philadelphia Art Museum or the colossal presence of The Franklin Institute.
Instead, the museum is tucked quietly away between the apartments at 17th and Montgomery streets – just a few blocks away from the center of Main Campus.
This semester, The Wagner and Temple came together in a new way – the old, cavernous lecture hall on the first floor of the museum is now a Temple classroom.
Professor Kenneth Finkel of the College Liberal Arts teaches a combination of undergraduate and graduate courses that focus on American studies, liberal arts, public history and Philadelphia art and culture.
“The Wagner is a great example of where it all comes together at one site,” Finkel said.
The upper gallery of the museum is similar to what Lea Stephenson, a senior art history major who is a member of the class, describes as a “walk through time.”
The Wagner building is somewhat a museum in itself. The layout and content of the inside of the building have not been changed since the late 19th century, allowing a glimpse of Victorian-era architecture.
The upper gallery of the museum is crowded with a myriad of items ranging from pristinely preserved wild birds, to stuffed sloths and wombats, to coral from Japan and sulphur from Sicily, to the world’s first discovered saber-tooth tiger. William Wagner originally collected these items in the 1840s and 1850s so that he could use them to teach classes on natural history.
“Over the last several years, thousands of students from Temple have been assigned to go to the Wagner or have wandered in on their own,” Finkel said. “After all, it’s free. It’s wonderful. These people go there, they realize, ‘What have I been missing? I have to go back.’”
In 1855, William Wagner moved his collection of artifacts to its current location in a building designed by the same architect who would go on to construct Philadelphia’s City Hall. Less than three decades later, Temple was founded nearby. The museum and the university have not had any sort of connection, despite their close proximity.
Finkel calls the lack of acknowledgement between the two institutions a “900 pound gorilla in the room,” a reference to the numerous exotic animal skeletons that inhabit the museum.
“Ken Finkel’s course, we have never offered one like it before,” Susan Glassman, the executive director of the museum, said.
Now, the Wagner museum will be not only a place where Temple students can “wander,” but also one where they can take a college class. Finkel will be teaching an American Studies class in the spacious lecture hall and the gallery of the museum.
“I think everyone realizes how special this is, because usually we’re confined to classrooms and lecture halls and digital images projected,” Finkel said. “Here we have the actual place, the actual stuff. Thousands and thousands of artifacts and the experience is wonderful.”
In the course, Museum Studies: Curating Authenticity, students will not only specifically study the artifacts of the Wagner Museum, but how and why they came about.
Adam Knapp, a sophomore geology major who is in the class, said the Wagner is not new to him. “My first time visiting the Wagner was when I was 7 years old and it was overwhelming,” Knapp said. “I was deeply interested by natural history and it felt like being a kid in a candy store.”
“The Wagner will form a framework for understanding museums and other cultural institutions, how they’ve developed and evolved and what their role is,” Glassman said.
The class is small and heavily focused upon deep and pungent questions the students formulate in hope they will eventually pursue and research them.
“The lecture hall hasn’t been changed significantly since the 19th century, so it’s an experience in and of itself,” Finkel said. “But I try not to use the traditional teaching methods of slides.”
The class starts in the museum’s gallery of artifacts, where Finkel writes questions about the setting in different students’ journals. After allowing a half-hour of what he calls “beautiful silence,” the questions are shared and discussed with peers and with staff.
“I’m able to discover a new detail about the specimens each week,” sophomore English major Shannon McDevitt said.
Students will also study William Wagner, the founder of the museum, and the North Philadelphia setting that existed when he was alive – one comprised of farmland, countryside and villages. Finkel, who is also a Temple alumnus, stresses the importance of knowing about the rich history of North Philadelphia.
McDevitt and other students are able to handle and analyze the journal in which William Wagner wrote his own thoughts and questions.
“Reading the founder’s thoughts out of his own journal makes the Wagner’s history seem so much more real and personal,” McDevitt said. “It’s a unique way to study cultural history.”
“People live here, they want to understand this place and North Philadelphia has been getting short shrift compared to other neighborhoods,” Finkel said. “This neighborhood is as historical and interesting and dynamic as any other in the city.”
The Wagner Museum also speaks volumes not only about natural history, but about the evolution of urban cultures and museum studies.
“This is the most authentic, original place that anyone probably has ever been in – more authentic than most museums that have been created,” Finkel said.
Angela Gervasi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org