The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, formerly Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, is the oldest natural science research institution and museum in the New World. It was founded in 1812 by many of the leading naturalists of the young republic with an expressed mission of "the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences."
For over nearly two centuries of continuous operations, the Academy has sponsored expeditions, conducted original environmental and systematics research, and amassed natural history collections containing more than 17 million specimens. The Academy also has a long tradition of public exhibits and educational programs for both schools and the general public.
Collections And Research :
Collections are the hallmark of museums and those at The Academy of Natural Sciences are among the more important of their kind. The size and scope of its collections have grown substantially since the early years. Currently, there are over 17 million biological specimens, and hundreds of thousands of volumes, journals, illustrations, photographs, and archival items in its library. These collections grew through a combination of means, including the donation or purchase of existing collections or individual items, the collection activities of Academy-sponsored expeditions, or those of individual scientists, whether or not they work at the Academy. Sometimes the Academy is also enlisted to house and care for collections originally gathered by other institutions. For example, a number of the natural history collections at the American Philosophical Society were relocated to the Academy by the end of the 19th century.
But these collections are not maintained just to collect dust. They provide a library of biodiversity. Traditionally, researchers at natural science (or natural history) institutions such as the Academy engaged in biological taxonomy, the science of discovering, describing, naming, and classifying species: in essence, the cataloging of Nature. In recent decades, research has shifted in emphasis to the science of systematics, the study of the evolutionary relationships among these species.
Either way, the collections are invaluable. They provide the type specimens, the reference material that helps establish a species' identity. They also provide raw materials with which scientists can investigate the nature of these species, their relationships with other species, their evolutionary history, or even their conservation status. New questions and new technology illustrate the importance of these collections. Titian Peale (1799–1885) may not have been interested in the conservation biology of the butterflies he collected while Henry Pilsbry (1862–1957) probably did not consider comparing the DNA of his snails. Yet, modern scientists have such options because these specimens are part of the collections.
Exhibits And Public Programs:
Public Exhibits :
The Academy first opened its collections to the public in 1828. The popularity of its exhibits soared in 1868 with the debut of the world's first mounted dinosaur skeleton, Hadrosaurus. In fact, the size of the crowds flocking to this display prompted the Academy to relocate to its present-and roomier-location in 1876.
Collections and the public :
As with most museums in the 19th century, there was little separation of the Academy's collections, which were vital to scientific work, and the public spaces. Not only did this subject the collections to extra wear and tear, but visitors were typically confronted with a bewildering assemblage of specimens with little in the way of supplemental information. Over time, however, museums such as the Academy started to showcase their more popular specimens while sequestering the bulk of the collections. In addition, they spent more effort interpreting their public displays. Museums started to play a more active role in educating the public.
One expression of this transformation was the rise of that icon of natural history museums, the diorama. These three-dimensional displays were the virtual reality of their time, providing generations of museum visitors with their only opportunity to experience distant places and exotic wildlife. By presenting the wilderness to the public, dioramas nurtured an appreciation of our natural heritage, which, in turn, contributed to the growth of the Conservation Movement in the United States
. The Academy currently has 37 dioramas, most of which were installed in the 1930s and 1940s. They feature a variety of animals from Africa
, and North America
. Some of these, such as the caribou, lion, and plains zebra are familiar and relatively common, but others, such as the desert bighorn, kiang, Kodiak bear, panda, and passenger pigeon, are threatened, endangered, or extinct.
Another icon of natural history museums is the dinosaur skeleton. The first of these, the Hadrosaurus mount created by noted natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, made its debut at the Academy in 1868. Hadrosaurus mounts also found their way into other public venues, including Princeton University, the Royal Scottish Museum, the Smithsonian, and the 1876 American Centennial Exposition. A special exhibit on the history of Hadrosaurus foulkii will run from November 22, 2008 to April 19, 2009.
Other Exhibits :
In 1979, the academy also opened "Outside-In", a hands-on children's nature museum. In 1995, it pioneered the hands-on simulation of a dinosaur dig, with its "The Big Dig." Other permanent exhibits include "Butterflies!", a live butterfly zoo, and "Science at the Academy", which showcases current Academy research. The museum also has special, changing exhibits. Recent changing exhibits include "Amazon Voyage: Vicious Fishes and Other Riches", "Frogs: a Chorus of Colors", "The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Exhibition", and "The Scoop on Poop: The Science of What Animals Leave Behind."
Four weekend festivals organized around scientific disciplines, are held during the year. Paleopalooza, held in mid-February, features fossil collections and talks by leading paleontologists. Earth Day Festival, held in mid-April, features scientists from the Academy's Patrick Center for Environmental Research. Bug Fest, held in mid August, features entomologists, insect collections and live insects. The Philadelphia Shell Show, held in mid-October, features an international shell market and competitive shell displays.
Programs for Adults :
The Academy began offering lectures to the public as early as the 1820s. Current offerings include natural history author talks, lectures by scientists, workshops and classes. In addition, the Center for Environmental Policy produces public programs on environmental issues.
Programs for families and children :
Since its Nature Club in the 1930s, the Academy has offered programming just for children. Several programs appropriate for different age groups are currently offered. Safari Overnight sleepovers (camp-ins) are held on selected weekends during Fall, Winter, and Spring. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts can participate in day workshops and sleepovers to fulfill badge and pin requirements. Tiny Tot Explorers is a program for toddlers. A new series of Family Workshops designed for both adults and children was launched in early 2010.
"Wild Weekends", held on selected weekends throughout the year, offer a variety of children's programs, including hands-on exploration of museum specimens, crafts and live animal shows with mammals, birds and reptiles. Live animal shows are also presented at regular times on other days and featured prominently in the educational programs.