Hidden rooms, nooks and alcoves that will open up your world

Wagner Free Institute of Science

Wagner Free Institute of Science

Museum Miles

by Lauren Johnson

For the Science Set

1. Insectarium
Some of the insects are alive and ready to show their stuff up close
8046 Frankford Ave.
Whether you’re an entomologist or an insect enthusiast, Insectarium offers an educational experience fit for all. Situated in Northeast Philadelphia, the museum is fairly unsuspecting for being the largest insect museum in the nation. Upon entering, you will find three floors filled with interactive learning tools, insects of all kinds and experienced staff waiting for you to “bug” them with your questions, or show you the insects up close—out of their enclosures. John Cambridge, Insectarium’s new CEO, and his team have been working hard to make improvements to enrich visitor experience by making it more interactive. Displays housing the insects can be viewed at any angle and are carefully constructed from materials familiar to the insects’ native environment, and touch screen games help encourage children to learn in a playful way. Insectarium is in the process of building a butterfly pavilion (due to open to the public Feb. 25), where visitors will have the opportunity to roam about in a tropical setting among several species of butterfly. There is also an observation center where one can watch the different stages of butterfly metamorphosis. 

2. The Wagner Free Institute of Science
Animal specimens among the first of their kind to be discovered
1700 W. Montgomery Ave.
Amid the modern day bustle of the city sits a museum with some of our earliest relics of our natural world. The Wagner Free Institute of Science, founded in 1855 by William Wagner, is dedicated to natural history. Specimens include fossils, minerals, dinosaur bones and even the first-discovered American saber-toothed cat. Little has changed about the museum since the 19th century, giving visitors a glimpse of the Victorian era. Artifacts are showcased in their original cherry-wood and glass displays, many of which still have Wagner’s handwritten labels. Specimens are laid out as originally intended: for scholarly research that was open to all at no cost, just as it is today. Other highlights of the collection include Wagner’s considerable mineral display—one of the oldest in North America. To further foster the love of natural history, visitors are invited to take courses held at the institute, taught by professors from surrounding universities, or share in one of their many lecture series events.  

3. Chemical Heritage Foundation
Some off-the-wall paintings of alchemists doing their mad-scientist best
315 Chestnut St.
In the heart of Old City, the Chemical Heritage Foundation is home to a historic collection of scientific archives, art, relics and artifacts that have been influential to how science and technology have affected our past and will ultimately shape our future. The museum takes special care in telling the stories of the people who influenced scientific breakthroughs and their processes in getting there. Guests can learn how plastics are made or how to measure oxygen on Mars, and they can compare 170 different chemistry sets from around the world. The museum also relays the relevance of science and art, offering a comprehensive collection of paintings and drawings from the past several decades depicting the work of chemists and alchemists. Aside from enjoying the exhibits, patrons can take advantage of the Othmer Library, which houses rare books and scholarly papers open to researchers; a weekly Brown Bag Lunch series with talks by local scholars; and First Friday programs that are free and open to the public. The Chemical Heritage Foundation is a great place for those who love asking “why?” 

Artist Alcoves

1. Tiberino Museum
The collective nine-lot backyard includes a giant treehouse and stage
3819 Hamilton St. 
Founded in 1999, West Philadelphia’s Tiberino Museum is a living memorial dedicated to the memory of the late renowned Philadelphia artist Ellen Powell Tiberino. The museum is unique as it celebrates the artist’s life in a collective, familial way; her husband, Joe, passed away last year. But the couple's children Ellen, Raphael and Gabriel, still inhabit the residence that is filled to the brim with the family’s eclectic art, which ranges from paintings to three-dimensional murals and sculpture. It’s rare to have such a personal experience like this, being able to tour the house and property, meet the family and hear their stories that span nearly half a century. Visitors are invited to share their world by attending art salons, drawing sessions, poetry readings, musical performances and more. The collection not only includes the family’s art, but that of friends and others involved in the Philadelphia art community. Over time, the five-building complex in the Powelton Village neighborhood has grown to include a shared courtyard that has turned into a lush and expanding sculpture garden. Neighbors who share in the vision of encouraging art in the community have opened up their yards to expand the garden to include nine city lots. The Tiberino Museum offers an extraordinary opportunity to surround yourself with art and hear from the devoted family that made it possible.     

2. The Fabric Workshop and Museum
You can see an artist’s process as well as the final result
1214 Arch St.
In the heart of Center City you’ll find the Fabric Workshop and Museum. Founded in the late ’70s, itserves as a resource for artists of diverse backgrounds to share their visions and artistic processes with the public. Part museum and part living workshop, the museum provides studio and workspace to artists-in-residence, whose creations and methods are shared as their projects approach completion. The museum’s permanent collection encapsulates its rich history and includes more than 5,000 objects documenting the creative journey of contemporary artists. Though originally focusing on fabric arts, it has since expanded to include those working in painting, sculpture, performance, architecture, video and installation. To further the interactive experience, a host of educational workshops and programs are also available and open to all ages. 

3. The Rosenbach Museum and Library
Acclaimed poet Marianne Moore’s actual living room was reconstructed in the space
2008-2010 Delancey Place
Notes for James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”? Early notes and drawings by Lewis Carroll? They’re all hiding at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. Whether you’re a literary enthusiast or a lover of history, the Rosenbach will spark your zeal for both. This iconic literary museum got its start in the early 1950s through brothers and renowned American book dealers A.S.W. and Philip Rosenbach. The brothers played a major role in developing private libraries, which now house some of the most prominent collections of rare books. The majority of the collection at the Rosenbach is composed of the brothers’ personal collection, which includes more than 400,000 rare books and historic treasures, including the manuscripts and drawings of the writers listed above, as well as many others.  There is also a trove of artifacts on view, which include Herman Melville’s desk, as well as modernist poet Marianne Moore’s actual living room—transported from her home and assembled on site. Though visiting a museum full of rare books may seem like a “hands-off” experience, the Rosenbach offers interactive opportunities with the collection. Special Hands-On Tours allow visitors to get up close and personal with some of the museum’s artifacts, including the opportunity to turn the pages and read from rare books.  

4. Woodmere Art Museum
Beautiful galleries and an outdoor sculpture garden adjacent to the Wissahickon
9201 Germantown Ave.
Located in the picturesque Chestnut Hill area, the Woodmere Art Museum is situated in a handsome stone mansion previously owned by civic leader and passionate art collector Charles Knox Smith.  Dedicated to the art and artists of Philadelphia, this historic building is both elegant and inviting, with unique touches such as sparkling cut-glass windows and an “Edison ceiling,” which lights part of the permanent collection with “modern” light bulbs of the late 19th century. Nine galleries house the museum’s growing collection of more than 6,000 works of art, and the permanent exhibition features pieces by Benjamin West, Edward Willis Redfield, N.C. Wyeth and Violet Oakley, among others. Aside from its impressive regional collection, the surrounding property comprises 6 lush acres adjacent to the Wissahickon Creek, offering an opportunity for a nature break during your visit. The grounds are free for the public to roam and interact with the monumental sculptures, which complements and provokes interaction with the surrounding nature. Patrons are encouraged to take part in educational programs offered throughout the year for children, adults and professionals alike, and there are ongoing gallery talks, musical performances and lectures throughout.      

Living History

1. Mercer Museum
Turn-of-the-century tools, musical instruments and Harry Potteresque nooks
84 S. Pine St., Doylestown, Pa.
If one museum never seems to be enough, then the Mercer Museum is just for you. Located slightly off the beaten path, the museum is about 40 minutes north of Philadelphia in the bustling historic borough of Doylestown and is operated in conjunction with Fonthill Castle, the former abode of founder Henry Mercer. As an anthropologist, Mercer thought that the story of human advancement could be told through the tools they used, which at that time were slowly diminishing through the onset of industrialization. The museum’s collection includes artifacts of artisanal culture, including lumbering, brick and stone making, watchmaking, musical instruments and more. A short drive from the museum is Fonthill Castle, which is a castle like no other: The six-story structure is cast entirely in concrete, and it is said that Mercer opted to build it this way as a safety precaution after a relative’s collection of prized medieval armor was destroyed in a fire. The edifice is a feast for the senses and full of odd stairways, peculiar alcoves and eclectic rooms, many of which are embedded with quirky, decorative tiles handmade by Mercer himself at his adjacent tile workshop (Moravian Pottery & Tile Works), which is still active today.  

2. Cliveden
Records that show how prominent Northern families made money from Southern slaves on their plantations
6401 Germantown Ave.
Just outside of Center City, Cliveden is a historic site that was previously the summer home of Benjamin Chew, a member of an elite family who made their fortune in part through several plantations in the South and mid-Atlantic. The home plays a vital role in cataloging important moments in Pennsylvanian and American history, including economic activity that was made possible by the slave trade. The Chews were meticulous record keepers of all the doings of their family’s estates: Archives comprising more than 200,000 documents reveal some of the oldest maps of the city, first-hand commentary on major historic issues and events—many of which can be seen on site. There are also detailed records and accounts of the slaves owned by the Chews, documenting the lives of those who may otherwise have been forgotten. The property was also the site of the Battle of Germantown during the Revolutionary War, where Gen. George Washington’s army fought the British to free occupied Philadelphia, leaving behind more than 150 dead soldiers. The battle is commemorated every October, when visitors can watch a live re-enactment, participate in the folding of a massive American flag, listen to a pipe band and take part in a host of other Revolutionary War activities.  

3. Independence Seaport Museum
A full-sized replica of a 1790s schooner sailed by John Barry
211 S. Columbus Blvd.
It’s hard not to be enticed by historic Penn’s Landing and Philadelphia’s waterfront, and it’s even harder not to notice the stoic ships docked there. If you’ve ever wanted to hop aboard, the Independence Seaport Museum offers that chance and more. Visitors can explore the Olympia, the oldest American steel war ship, which belonged to Admiral George Dewey during the Spanish-American War; or they can squeeze their way through the Becuna, an original submarine that fought in the battles of the South Pacific. In addition, a full-sized stationary replica of the 102-foot schooner Diligence, sailed by John Barry during the Quasi-War, offers a hands-on experience. Guests can learn about shipbuilding and operation, including how to steer and hoist the sails. The museum also showcases an array of maritime-themed artifacts such as ship relics, tools, nautical equipment and art relating to the historic importance of our Delaware River region.  

Mercer Museum

Mercer Museum