Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences celebrating its bicentennial

At the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the skeleton of a dinosaur looms over some visitors. In 2011, more than 225,000 people visited the museum. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
At the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the skeleton of a dinosaur looms over some visitors. In 2011, more than 225,000 people visited the museum. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer (At the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University,)
Posted: March 21, 2012

Deep within the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University - a hushed maze of often dark hallways - are birds collected more than 100 years ago by John James Audubon.

Today, the manager of that collection, Nate Rice, is in the jungles of North Vietnam, doing studies that may help solve the puzzle of avian flu.

More than half a century ago, water-quality expert Ruth Patrick analyzed single-celled aquatic organisms from the hull of a German U-boat and learned where it had been based.

Today, Academy scientists are testing northern Pennsylvania streams to determine whether gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale is degrading water quality.

Such is how the past and future intersect at the oldest natural history museum in the hemisphere, which Wednesday marks its 200th anniversary.

Leaders are on a course to reinvent the Academy. They are reinvigorating the research, making the exhibits more relevant, and moving the Academy into the realm of public policy.

"Our job is to provide comprehensive data that will allow people to make good decisions," said George W. Gephart Jr., president and chief executive, who joined the Academy in August 2010.

Although the Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York have more visitors and bigger endowments, the Academy is renowned for the incalculable value of its collection. More than 17 million specimens include herbs gathered on the Lewis and Clark expedition and fossils that belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

The Academy was founded in 1812 by seven amateur naturalists whose mission was "the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences."

Now, as it begins its third century, the Academy has merged with Drexel, a union that received wide attention because it seemed such a propitious melding of expertise - researchers at the Academy, educators at Drexel, the collection to bolster both, and more.

Already the association is bearing fruit, Gephart said.

Drexel is forming a new department - biodiversity, earth and environmental sciences - with some of the courses taught by Academy scientists. Drexel students will come regularly to the Academy, and the staff is scrambling to find space for classrooms.

"This will really kick the science into the next gear," said Drexel paleontologist Ken Lacovara.

Other museums are watching with interest. "This brew needs to sit for awhile for us to see how it's going to turn out," said Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums.

"I think the future is good," he said, although money remains a perennial issue.

In the recent economic downturn, the Academy's endowment fell to $43 million, but now it is just above $50 million - progress, but still a long way from the 2007 high of $64.7 million.

Since the affiliation, the Academy and Drexel have been bolstered by two seven-figure gifts from the region's two largest funders - the Pew Charitable Trusts and William Penn Foundation.

On the Academy board, members came through with $700,000 to paint and otherwise dress up the museum for the bicentennial.

In 2011, more than 225,000 people visited the Academy, about 34,000 of them arriving in yellow school buses.

The Center for Environmental Policy, which started in 2008 and brings together scientists, policymakers, and the public to discuss environmental issues, held 31 programs last year that drew more than 4,000 people.

In the Academy's storied past, its members have included nine Nobel laureates, two U.S. presidents, and the current Dalai Lama (whose staff had to consider what "life membership" might mean for someone who is endlessly reincarnated).

Famed for having the first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton, the Academy is still sometimes referred to as "the dinosaur museum" - a label that is both a source of pride and a bit of an irritant, given that the Academy has become so much more.

As part of the Academy's new vigor, leaders are turning the museum inside out. Now, researchers regularly work at stations in the exhibit area, where visitors can see science in progress.

Instead of ditching its several dozen dioramas, many of them relics from the previous century, the Academy now celebrates them with an exhibit that includes touchable fake eyeballs, noses, and tongues.

Once a month over the next year, visitors will be invited behind the scenes for tours of the Academy's specimens.

Meanwhile, those collections are being used in ways never before imagined.

In malacology, oysters are being used to evaluate the effects of the Gulf oil spill. Research into new pharmacological compounds from the venom of sea snails has yielded a new anesthetic. A Department of Energy grant is funding investigations of how ship worms digest cellulose, which may lead to better biofuels.

"Irredeemably cool," noted Paul Callomon, collections manager in mollusks and general invertebrates. The specimens "provide a calendar of environmental conditions a long time ago," he said.

As the world starts losing species, "our collections and programs are going to be more and more important," said Doug Wechsler, director of the Academy's Visual Resources for Ornithology, the most comprehensive collection of bird images in the world.

Not long ago, researchers from Italy and Yugoslavia recovered DNA from a 175-year-old fish originally in the collection of the French emperor Napoleon's nephew. The species was thought extinct, but the DNA proved that some survive in an Italian lake.

Even among the three million insects in the Academy collection are new species yet to be analyzed.

Wednesday night, the Academy is hosting a party for VIPs. The celebration officially begins Saturday, with the opening of "The Academy at 200: The Nature of Discovery." The jaw-dropper of the exhibit is an 80-foot wall of lit cabinets, displaying gems of the Academy's collections.

The Academy board is devising a strategic plan, which Gephart expects to see completed by the end of June. More big announcements are pending, he said. "For us, it's about being sure that we utilize our strengths and that they are relevant, but that we're also not bound by them," Gephart said. "If we can't constantly reinvent ourselves and prove our relevance, then we would become a dinosaur."


Take a peek behind the curtains at the Academy of Natural Sciences, which is celebrating its bicentennial. Go to www.philly.com/academy


Contact Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Read her blog, "GreenSpace," at www.philly.com/greenspace

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