Throughout this semester, the Karabots Junior Fellows have been focusing on the medical and social construction of human bodies. Recently, they expanded their knowledge to include how museums display animal bodies. In the first of two field trips on this topic, the Fellows visited the Wagner Free Institute of Science to explore their vast collection of natural history specimens. The Institute had its origins as an educational lecture series run by William Wagner (1796-1885), a Philadelphia merchant and amateur scientist. In 1855, local merchant and amateur scientist William Wagner (1796-1885) incorporated the Institute as a place to educate the public on the natural sciences, utilizing educators and his eclectic collection of wildlife specimens. Today the Institute’s natural history museum houses over 10,000 specimens, including fossils, skeletons, and taxidermy animals, many of which are on display to the public in nineteenth century artifact cases not unlike the Mütter Museum (which opened its doors around the same time as the Wagner). Both the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Wagner Free Institute of Science share a common figure in Joseph Leidy. Leidy, a pioneer of microscopy, a scholar of comparative anatomy, and a Fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (among other things) succeeded Wagner as Director of the Institute following his death in 1885.
After a brief introduction from Wagner Museum Educator Annie Zhang, the Fellows were tasked with identifying a specimen they found interesting and to make a sketch of it. At the end of our visit, the Fellows shared their selections and showed off their artistic skills. To commemorate their visit, the students took part in the “Mannequin Challenge,” a trend where people freeze in stationary poses while someone films them to the tune of “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd, gathering around the Institute’s impressive skeleton of a 19th century English draught horse.