Philadelphia is one of America’s oldest large cities, and it has been the home of many American “firsts,” including serving as the first U.S. capital. Among Philadelphia’s “firsts” are: the first post office, the first public library, the first zoo, and the first natural history museum. That history museum, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, was founded in 1812, and in 2011 became officially affiliated with nearby Drexel University. Not only was the Academy the first natural history museum in North America, it was the first in the western hemisphere, and dinosaurs have played a large role in its history.
As the first established science organization in the United States, the Academy of Natural Sciences has played a significant role in the history of science in this country. The very first dinosaur skeleton displayed in America was a Hadrosaurus collected by famed paleontologist Joseph Leidy in Haddonfield, New Jersey–about 15 miles from the Academy’s doors. That dinosaur is maintained in the collections of the Academy, which include more fossils found by Leidy, who is often considered the father of American paleontology. Other fossils were discovered by “bone wars” scientist and Philadelphia native Edward Drinker Cope. The museum features a nice statue of Leidy out front, next to a pair of large animatronic dinosaurs.
It doesn’t take long to see fossil highlights once you enter the building: hanging above the reception desk is the full skeletal mount of an Elasmosaurus. A large plesiosaur, the Elasmosaurus is famously connected to paleontology history. During the “Bone Wars” (1872-1892) between Cope of Philadelphia and Yale’s O.C. Marsh, both scientists rushed to describe newly discovered animals that were being found in the western states. What Cope called “Elasmosaurus” had been discovered in Kansas, and Cope mistakenly placed the creature’s head on the end of its tail rather than its neck. The mistake was not immediately noticeable to most scientists–far more animals have longer tails than necks, and it seemed appropriate that Elasmosaurus was no different. Cope’s first drawings were published in 1869, and by 1870 Joseph Leidy at the Academy of Natural Sciences had pointed out Cope’s error. There was no doubt that Marsh delighted in Cope’s embarrassing mistake, but many written accounts of the Bone Wars incorrectly attribute the finding of the error to Marsh when in fact Leidy had noticed it much earlier.
With this historical note in mind, I was happy to see the Elasmosaurus hanging in such a prominent place at the Academy. One of the nice things about the museum are the displays featuring important paleontology history, including artifacts and materials from both Leidy and Cope. In fact, one of my favorite displays in the museum is the set of bones from the first dinosaur, the Hadrosaurus discovered by Leidy. Instead of creating a full skeletal mount using mostly casts of bones from other animals, the display in Philadelphia features just the bones found by Leidy. I think it’s great! Plenty of museums have full-skeletal mounts that are mostly casts of various hadrosaurs, but seeing the first bones from a dinosaur that were associated with each other from North America is a real treat. Visitors will probably be startled to realize how few bones were found of this first American dinosaur, but it was an important discovery and led to the first golden age of dinosaur fossil collecting.
In the main dinosaur hall, a large full-skeletal cast mount of Tyrannosaurus stands at the entrance. Although the original is in New York, most visitors will be thrilled to get a close-up view of this wonderful skeleton. Nearby, a great depiction of a battle between erstwhile enemies Deinonychus and Tenontosaurus draws plenty of attention. There are a number of cast skulls of carnivores in the middle of the hall, which include early dinosaurs like Eoraptor, Herrerasaurus, and Dilophosaurus, and later dinosaurs such as Acrocanthosaurus and Velociraptor.
The museum displays several ceratopsians. A nice full-skeletal cast of Chasmosaurus stands near the middle of the hall, and nearby is a great display of Torosaurus, itself the subject of much recent debate. The debate centers on the question of whether or not Torosaurus is a valid genus or an aged specimen of Triceratops. Of all the current hot debates in paleontology, I am particularly torn on this one–just when I think the evidence points to it being a Triceratops, I see something that leads me to believe that Torosaurus was a different animal. Come to the Academy of Natural Sciences and form your own conclusions! One of the dinosaurs in the hall that is based on fossils held at the Academy is a much smaller ceratopsian called Avaceratops, discovered in 1981. The specimen is a juvenile so it is somewhat difficult to project how large the creature might have grown.
My favorite dinosaur on display at the Academy of Natural Sciences is a full-skeletal mount of a large Corythosaurus, a distant relative of Hadrosaurus known for its rounded crest. The mount here is great–many museums display casts of the skull of Corythosaurus and its close relative Lambeosaurus because of the interesting nature of their crests, but seeing the entire animal allows one to better appreciate the size and strength of these large herbivores from the Late Cretaceous. It is also one of the few dinosaurs on display at the Academy that contains a signifcant number of fossil bones rather than casts. A full cast mount of Pachycephalosaurus stands nearby, and on the 2nd floor several more dinosaurs can be found, including a partial skeleton of Struthiomimus (the “Ostrich mimic”) and a full cast skeleton of Velociraptor.
Beyond dinosaurs, the museum has a very nice collection of animals from the ancient sea, including sea reptiles, fish, and turtles. A large Xiphactinus hangs towards the front, followed by the star of this section–a 43′ long giant mosasaur called Tylosaurus, a cast of the original at the University of Kansas. I like the way it’s displayed: it is close to eye-level, and the skeleton is straight, which allows visitors to walk the entire length of it and see just how long this animal was. Another mosasaur on display is Plioplatecarpus, much smaller than the Tylosaurus but still a large sea reptile capable of catching sizeable prey. Along with the mosasaurs are several ancient turtles, including a trio of Protostega, one of the largest turtles of the Cretaceous. My favorite sea creature on display is an Ichthyosaurus fossil from England that is still encased in the rock. Much of the creature’s large head and several other bones are easily visible.
IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS, WILL I ENJOY MY VISIT?
While the Dinosaur Hall is the first exhibit visitors see when entering the museum, it is certainly not the only exhibit worth seeing here. The animal dioramas on the 2nd floor are excellent, featuring animals from Africa and Asia. The North American dioramas can be found on the first floor. One exhibit that is a lot of fun is called “Butterflies!,” which is a tropical environment containing dozens of live butterflies from around the world. Outside the building, the museum is about a block away from the Franklin Institute, a science and educational center featuring numerous displays and a beautiful memorial to its namesake, Benjamin Franklin. I found that parking in the Franklin Institute’s garage was an easy way to see both places and avoid the headache of trying to find parking in the busy lots near the museum or on the streets nearby. Of course, in a city as big and wonderful as Philadelphia, there is always plenty to do. The world-class Philadelphia Museum of Art is less than a mile away, and the plentiful historical sites of the Old City district, including Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, are just a few miles to the east.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
For a museum with such an illustrious history and large collection, several of the main displays here are casts and many of them come from animals whose fossils are on display at other museums. I appreciate the effort to put the Academy’s history up-front in the exhibit, particularly the Elasmosaurus, the Hadrosaurus fossils from the first dinosaur discovery in America, and the Leidy and Cope memorabilia. Still, although Cope was from Philadelphia, most of his collection is now in New York at the American Museum of Natural History. While the displays at the Academy of Natural Sciences are really good, I couldn’t help but feel a strong sense that something is missing–that more fossils from this historic institution should be on display here. Unfortunately, there are no exhibits featuring animals from the pre-dinosaur world, and no displays featuring animals from the post-dinosaur era (before the modern animal displays) either.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
Philadelphia has been one of my favorite cities to visit since I was a child, but sadly my own children have not yet been able to visit this historic museum. The museum is very active with children’s programs, though, and large numbers of schoolchildren visit throughout the year. Some of the highlights for young children (besides the dinosaurs) would certainly include the huge dig pit room called “The Big Dig” for pretend paleontology, and a wonderful space called “Outside In” that allows children hands-on play in a variety of environments.
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD I PLAN TO SPEND THERE?
On my most recent visit I spent about two hours, the first hour on the dinosaurs and prehistoric fossils; the second hour on some of the other highlights in the museum. If I were bringing children I would plan to spend at least two hours, perhaps up to three.
The Academy of Natural Sciences is a fun museum and there are several cool displays that should interest any dinosaur enthusiast. While other museums around the country have caught and passed it, the Academy is still among the top 25 natural history museums in North America.
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Fossil Displays:
Number of Fossils/Dinosaurs on Display: (7.5 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (7.5 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (7 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (8 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (7 out of 10)