U.S. science started here

samples in a stream, circa 1970. ANSP Archives
samples in a stream, circa 1970. ANSP Archives (Ruth Patrick collecting)

The Academy of Natural Sciences celebrates its 200th anniversary.

Posted: March 23, 2012

Like many native Philadelphians, Robert M. Peck has fond memories of childhood visits to Philly's "Dinosaur museum" - the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Peck never outgrew his love for the Logan Square repository of millions of specimens of all things animal, mineral, and vegetable. Basically, he never left.

After a childhood of visits, academy classes, and volunteering in high school, Peck was hired in 1976 after earning his master's degree in history. Thirty-six years later, Peck, 59, is senior fellow of the academy and curator of art and artifacts, ready to begin a yearlong celebration of the academy's 200th anniversary.

"The Academy at 200: The Nature of Discovery" begins Saturday to commemorate its founding on March 21, 1812. With extended hours of 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. both days this weekend, the celebration features special events, entertainment, tours behind the scenes, and views of some of the 18 million specimens the public rarely sees.

The programs also illustrate the academy's continuing role in real science, such as Ruth Patrick's groundbreaking research beginning in the 1940s on the impact of pollution on the health of freshwater streams and rivers.

Today, the academy's 65 scientists - including 23 Ph.D.s - are in Asia, the rain forests of South America, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean and Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale studying the impact of humans on Earth.

"Our job is to try to understand it and, when appropriate, advise governments and agencies how to preserve and protect it," Peck said.

Peck's special contribution to the party is the academy's first autobiography, A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science, to be published in April by University of Pennsylvania Press. Written with Patricia Tyson Stroud, the book contains new photographs of the collection by Boston artist and photographer Rosamond Purcell.

"I thought that, having been here 35 years, I knew pretty much all the stories," Peck said. "But it turns out it was just scratching the surface [of] telling this amazing story of the place where science in America really got its start."

In American science, the academy is Independence Hall. It was born as citizen-scientists - notably Thomas Jefferson - were trying to impose a scientific discipline on collecting to prove that the science of the fledgling United States was equal to the work in Europe.

This is why the academy has Jefferson's personal collection of fossils, the bird specimens collected by naturalist and artist John James Audubon, and the collection of Lewis and Clark, the explorers Jefferson sent west in 1804 on a two-year "Corps of Discovery Expedition" of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.

"This is the story of not only the academy, but it's the story of the Smithsonian and of the American [Museum of Natural History in New York] because the academy is the one who started all of this," said Jacqueline Genovesi, senior director of education and the person responsible for assembling the special exhibit that fills a gallery of the building at 19th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

"It's our history, it's our national history of science collecting that we all get to celebrate," Genovesi added.

Over the centuries, the academy has attracted a diverse group of collectors.

Writer Ernest Hemingway collected fish for the academy and in the 1930s took the academy's then-president and curator of fish for six weeks of fishing off Cuba.

"It turns out that Hemingway was incredibly knowledgeable about fish, and our ichthyologists learned a lot from him," Peck said.

It was a two-way street, Peck added. Letters between Hemingway and academy ichthyologists show he used their expertise in his novel The Old Man and the Sea.

James Bond - not Agent 007 but the expert on birds of the West Indies whose name Ian Fleming borrowed - lived in Philadelphia, had a long association with the academy, and supplied bird specimens, Peck said.

Though he works at a science institution, Peck is trained as a historian - a bachelor's degree from Princeton in art history and archaeology, master's in cultural history from the University of Delaware. His job includes accompanying academy scientists to chronicle and photograph their field work.

Last year, Peck said, he and his wife and two young children went with academy scientists to Mongolia researching climate change. His family met with locals and herded sheep and goats. Parts of the yurt they lived in are in the bicentennial exhibit.

Creating the exhibit was not easy. Finding a few favorites, said Genovesi, was like picking a few good books from the Library of Congress: "Each of our curators came back with a list of way more than we could ever display."

This is the beginning of a new chapter for the academy. In October, officials announced a partnership with Drexel University. The institutions will exchange staff, resources, and research, and Drexel is now officially part of the name.

That's why Genovesi says the bicentennial program is "setting the stage for the next 200 years . . . we're no longer the cabinet of curiosities, we're so much more."

Of course, the cabinet of curiosities still plays a central role in the bicentennial. "Secrets of the Dioramas," for example, shows visitors how the academy's famous scenes of mounted animals were created and why they look fresh and realistic 75 years later.

Others, such as behind-the-scenes tours with curators of the collection - Thursdays through Mondays beginning April 15 - will show why the collection is still used by scientists for research.

"One of the great arguments in favor of a repository of these things is that we have no way of knowing what the questions will be decades from now or centuries from now," Peck said.

Genovesi said the exhibition will also try to take visitors back to the academy's citizen-scientist roots.

This weekend, visitors will get free collection boxes. Each month, returning visitors will get a free nature item for the box based on a monthly theme - April, for example, is mineral month - and they will be encouraged to find their own specimens.

Genovesi said it is a way of reinvigorating the academy's relationship with the community: "We want to start people becoming naturalists and really looking at the world around them as the academy does."

The Birthday Party Events

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University opens its yearlong 200th anniversary celebration through February 2013. Hours are extended this weekend, opening from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Among this weekend's activities:

Opening of the new exhibit, "The Academy at 200: The Nature of Discovery," offering rarely seen discoveries and a look at the future.

A five-minute multimedia laser-powered light show on the building's facade at 7:30 p.m. and every 30 minutes until 10:30 p.m. Friday through Tuesday.

Free nature-collection boxes for all visitors. Each month, returning visitors will receive a free nature item, based on a monthly theme, to add to their personal collection.

Free birthday cake and entertainment including: face-painting; the Diggity Dudes band and their science-themed dancing and songs; a barbershop quartet and the chance to take a picture with T-Rex, the academy's mascot; and Mario the Drexel Dragon.

Costumed reenactors portraying famous academy scientists such as Joseph Leidy, Edward Cope, Matthew Henson, and Ruth Patrick.

Spontaneous pop-up tours of Dinosaur Hall and other exhibits.

   Beginning April 15, curators will take small groups behind the scenes, beginning at 11 a.m. Thursdays through Mondays. A different specimen collection will be highlighted each month. The tours are $5 for academy members and $7.50 for nonmembers or visitors ages 8 or older.

   On April 25, Robert M. Peck and Patricia Tyson Stroud will discuss publication of their history, A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science.

   From April through June 2013, the academy will sponsor a "Bicentennial Town Square Series: New Questions for an Old Planet."

   In June, the academy will host the 30th anniversary of Women in Natural Sciences. October will feature creations by noted chefs.

   The academy is at 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends and holidays. Admission is $15, $13 for children and seniors, students and military and free for members. Information: 215-299-1000 or www.ansp.org.

Take a peek behind the curtains at the Academy of Natural Sciences, which is celebrating its bicentennial.

Go to www.philly.com/academy

Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or @joeslobo on Twitter.


comments powered by Disqus