Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure science.
– Edwin Powell Hubble, American astronomer and one of the most important observational cosmologists of the 20th century
When going on a family vacation to a major city, we seek science and natural science museums, mostly for the kids’ entertainment, and in Philadelphia we visited some great interactive venues.
The Franklin Institute: ‘having fun down to a science’
The Franklin Institute (222 North 20th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103, 215.448.1200), opened in 1825, is one of the oldest centers of science education and development in the U.S. Newly expanded, it has 12 permanent exhibit galleries, including a flight simulator, which David and Jacob gamely took on. The Circus! exhibit featured a look at how biology and physics enabled circus performers to swallow swords and fly from cannons; neither kid, however, ventured to check out the trapeze or cannon exhibits. The Ocean Soul by National Geographic featured renowned photographer Brian Skerry and his up-close-and-personal, bursting-with-color photographs of the deep sea and its creatures. Other exhibits included learning about how the brain and heart work and understanding the physics in sports.
Philadelphia History Museum: hometown history begins here
Not a science museum, but the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent (15 South 7th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 215.685.4830) feels somewhat interactive because visitors are surrounded by more than 100,000 historical objects, art, and artifacts of Philadelphia residents past and present in this very intimate museum. Founded in 1938 and reopened in 2012 after a three-year renovation, it was set up to be the city’s history museum, chronicling its time from the 1680s to present day. Face to Facebook is an interesting exhibit featuring portraits of Philadelphians from the 17th to the 21st centuries and how they viewed themselves. The main gallery of the eight-gallery museum consists of a large map of the city and surrounding suburbs. The museum is also actively collecting stories from residents to further capture the history of this vibrant city.
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University: ‘where science runs wild’
The Academy of Natural Sciences (1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19103, 215.299.1000) of Drexel University was founded in 1812 and is the oldest natural science research institution and museum in the New World. This leading natural history museum is dedicated to advancing research, education, and public engagement in biodiversity and environmental science. Hands-down, this was one of the kids and our (adults) favorite museums in Philadelphia. Dinosaurs have been a love of the kids since they were toddlers, so the Dinosaur Hall, housed in the first floor, was the natural first stop.
We love butterflies, so we hung out at the top floor, which housed the winged creatures’ exhibit, and spent quite a bit of time patiently photographing them (and jostling for position with other photographers, as well). Complementing the butterfly exhibit, which is permanent, is the Pinned: Insect Art, Insect Science exhibit in the Art of Science Gallery. Artist Christopher Marley created intricate mosaics of insect specimens paired up with specimens from the Academy’s Entomology Collection.
The Academy boasts 37 dioramas, which seem archaic in our technology-driven world. While most of them were put together from the 1930s to the 1950s, they still haunt, intrigue, and instill wonder. A fascinating video and side exhibit demonstrated how these dioramas were created. While many feature familiar animals such as lions, zebras, gorillas, antelope, and other animals from Africa and Asia, the extinct passenger pigeon diorama is a sobering reminder of how fragile our ecosystem is.
One of our favorite exhibits was the Birds of Paradise: Amazing Avian Evolution, co-developed by the National Geographic and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which ran from May through Labor Day Weekend. The exhibit, which highlighted the groundbreaking research of photographer Tim Laman and Cornell ornithologist Edwin Scholes, transported us to the rainforests of New Guinea, where they painstakingly recorded, vividly photographed, and filmed the many different birds-of-paradise in their habitat, capturing such wondrous sights as their courtship dances. Laman and Scholes are passionate about educating the public about conserving the rainforests, home of these amazing birds, and the exhibit did a great job of teaching our kids the importance of protecting habitats such as rainforests and their inhabitants all over the world.
We didn’t catch every single museum in Philadelphia, but we sure did try. And enjoyed and educated ourselves along the way.