American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

West side of the American Philosophical Society

West side of the American Philosophical Society, by Ben Franske. Image licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license via Wikimedia.

The full official name of the Society is the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge. The name dates to 1769, when two scientific societies merged, but the APS traces its origins to 1743, when Benjamin Franklin and others formed the organization to provide a way for its members to get together to discuss “philosophical” matters. For Franklin, “philosophical” meant natural philosophy, the study of the natural world, science, and practical knowledge.

The APS is still a membership organization, with about 1,000 elected members accomplished in a broad range of fields, from science to civic and cultural affairs to social sciences and the humanities. It is the first learned society in the United States and meets semi-annually in interdisciplinary, intellectual fellowship. The APS also has a number of core programs. Research grants support a wide range of activities, including one of the oldest grant funds for ethnographic and linguistic field work. The Publications Department publishes monographs and journals, including the oldest learned journal in the country. The Museum, whose antecedent is Charles Willson Peale’s museum of the eighteenth century, puts on exhibits that reflect the interests of the Society and its collections.

While it is an organization separate from the APS, the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (PACHS), which offers fellowships, colloquia, and a federated on-line search tools, has its offices in one of the APS’ buildings.

The Museum has a changing program of temporary exhibitions, on interrelated themes of science, art and history; many – in fact most – of them are of direct interest to historians of science. See http://www.apsmuseum.org/. The Museum is located in Philosophical Hall, right next to Independence Hall, which is itself across the street from the Liberty Bell. You can visit the Liberty Bell for free any time it is open (the APS Museum, too, though donations are welcome), but you need timed tickets to see Independence Hall; tickets are free and available at the Visitors Center.

The Library has exhibits in its foyer, which is open to the public weekdays. During the summer tourist season there is an exhibit of treasures of the APS. Almost always on display is one of the original journals of Lewis and Clark, most of which were deposited in the Library by Thomas Jefferson in 1817.

Representation of waterspout accompanying "Water-spouts and Whirlwinds" by Benjamin Franklin c. 1750

Representation of waterspout accompanying "Water-spouts and Whirlwinds" by Benjamin Franklin c. 1750. Image available in the public domain via Wikipedia.

Library Hall, located across the street from Philosophical Hall, is home to one of the great independent research libraries in the country. Using the Library requires registration and making an appointment (see http://www.amphilsoc.org/library/research), but should you have an interest in one of the library’s collection strengths, there are rich holdings to explore. The three main collection areas are American history before 1860 (including the papers of Benjamin Franklin and Charles Willson Peale and his family), Native American ethnography and linguistics (including the papers of Franz Boas), and, of course, the history of science.

Early natural history is represented in such collections as the Benjamin Smith Barton Papers, the papers of John LeConte, and the journals of André Michaux. The papers of ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy are in the collection. Many other disciplines are represented: evolutionary biology (Charles Darwin, George Gaylord Simpson), physics (Edward U. Condon, John Wheeler); biochemistry (Carl Neuberg, Erwin Chargaff), computer science (John W. Tukey), bacteriology (Salvador Luria), neuroscience (Warren McCulloch), microbiology (Herbert Jennings), pathology (Peyton Rous, Simon Flexner), plant genetics (Barbara McClintock). Indeed, the genetics collection is among the best in the world and includes the papers of Theodosius Dobzhansky, L. C. Dunn, Sewall Wright, P. M. Sheppard and Curt Stern, to name a only a few. In addition, the APS is one of the largest repositories of eugenics collections in the world, holding records of such organizations as the Eugenics Records Office and the American Eugenics Society as well as the papers of Charles Davenport.

The Library also has a large collection of printed material, including some 275,000 bound volumes, thousands of maps, and tens of thousands of prints and photographs. Among the special printed collections are the Richard Gimbel Thomas Paine Collection, the Samuel Vaughan Collection (a rare, intact late 18th-early 19th century private library), and the James Valentine Charles Darwin Collection, containing works by Darwin in 25 languages.

Complete information about the American Philosophical Society can be found on its website, www.amphilsoc.org.

A Map of Lewis and Clark's Track, Across the Western Portion of North America From the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean; By Order of the Executive of the United States, in 1804, 5 & 6. Copied by Samuel Lewis from the Original Drawing of Wm. Clark.

A Map of Lewis and Clark's Track, Across the Western Portion of North America From the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean; By Order of the Executive of the United States, in 1804, 5 & 6. Copied by Samuel Lewis from the Original Drawing of Wm. Clark. Image available in the public domain via Wikipedia. The APS is home to one of the original journals of Lewis and Clark, most of which were deposited in the Library by Thomas Jefferson in 1817.

Swansea Museum, Wales

Main Entrance, Swansea Museum

Main Entrance, Swansea Museum

Swansea Museum is located in the maritime area near the centre of Swansea and adjacent to the docklands that for so long provided the lifeblood of the city. A couple of minutes walk away is the National Waterfront Museum, re-housed and re-opened in 2005, which tells the story of industry and innovation in Wales over the last 300 years. This leaves Swansea Museum with the challenging task of telling the history of the city itself and of its inhabitants. In addition to the building itself, the museum also includes three other locations. Two of these, a ‘floating display’ of boats and a tramshed on Dylan Thomas Square, are both located in nearby Swansea Marina. The three boats which form the ‘floating display’ – the lightship ‘Helwick’, a tug boat called ‘Canning’ and ‘Olga’, and a Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter built in 1909 – are open to the public during the summer months. The Tramshed displays memorabilia from the former street trams of Swansea and the Mumbles tram. The route of the Mumbles tram now forms a shared-use walkway and cycle route that follows the curve of bay from Swansea city centre to the old Victorian pier at the nearby seaside town of Mumbles. The fourth museum location, the Collections Centre, is located a few miles outside of the city centre and next to Liberty Stadium, home to Swansea City Football Club. The centre is open to visitors every Wednesday, 10am to 4pm, and provides opportunities to see the reserve and maritime & industrial collections.

Columns of the neo-classical building housing the main collections of Swansea Museum

Columns of the neo-classical building housing the main collections of Swansea Museum

The museum and its main collection are housed in a wonderful neo-classical Victorian building. In 1835 a philosophical and literary society was established in Swansea and in 1841 the Royal Institution South Wales (as it was now known) built the first purpose-built museum building in Wales, built in the neo-classical style. This impressive building is now home to the Swansea Museum, making it Wales’s oldest museum. The building and the city hosted the British Association for the Advancement of Science annual meetings in 1848 and 1880. Well-known ‘men of science’ of the day such as Michael Faraday (1791-1867), Swansea-born William Robert Grove (1811-1896), and Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) were all strong supporters of the Royal Institution South Wales and all three men lectured here on several occasions. The lecture chamber now forms part of the museum with much of the original features still intact.

History of the Royal Institution South West, Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum

History of the Royal Institution South West, Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum

Within the walls of this magnificent building is the main museum collection, a treasure trove of objects telling the fascinating history of the city. The downstairs section of the museum has the China Gallery, the original debating chamber, temporary exhibitions, and the museum shop. The upper floor of the museum houses displays on archaeology, Egyptology, and a cabinet of curiosities. The fruits of the commercial and industrial activities of the city are on display in the China gallery, which includes pottery as far back as early Cambrian wares (1768-90). The focus of this gallery is pottery made in Swansea, including some beautiful porcelain pottery. During my visit in January 2012 there were two temporary exhibitions, a small travelling exhibition on Amundsen and a local one on Copperopolis telling the story of Swansea, Copper and the world – both definitely of interest to historians of science and industry. The latter exhibition was housed in the former debating chamber and library.

Up the winding stairs – another original feature of the building – are displays on archaeology, Egyptology, and a cabinet of curiosities. The archaeology room covers the history of Swansea from the Pleistocene (Ice Age) to medieval period, and is modest in scope. The Egyptology display is a small room with the Mummy of Hor which has been on display almost continuously since 1888. The display is very much focussed on Egyptian history and folklore and the details of how and why this object came to Swansea are only be revealed in a small photograph in the Cabinet of Curiosities room. Further information on the object can be found on the BBC History of World objects website.

The entrance to the cabinet of curiosities room, Swansea Museum

The entrance to the cabinet of curiosities room, Swansea Museum

The Cabinet of Curiosities room is where, at least for this visitor, the museum comes to life. While lacking the content and interpretation of most modern museum displays, this room uses the breadth of the collection to explore the modern history of the city in its wider context. The room spans a wealth of displays and objects including (but not limited to): the model of a traditional Welsh kitchen; a brief history of the city including the World War Two bombing; a natural history of the Swansea area including the surrounding Gower peninsula (well worth a visit, particularly by bicycle); a history of the Royal Institution of South Wales; a Victorian lady’s room; a display on phrenology (sure to be of interest to historians of medicine); the chronology, historic urban and architectural photographs and drawings of the town; and other miscellanea. Towards the end of the Cabinet of Curiosity room is a small photograph of Field Marshal Lord Francis Wallace Grenfell (1841-1925) revealing how this Swansea-born gentleman choose a career in the Army over the family copper business and was posted to Egypt in the 1880s. Along with many educated Victorians of this age, Grenfell was greatly interested in archaeology and Egyptian history. He obtained the Mummy of Hor with the help of British Museum archaeologist Wallis Budge before gifting it to the Royal Institution of South Wales in 1888 along with the mummy’s coffin and other small funeral items. This visitor was left to wonder why this is not more prominently displayed alongside the Mummy itself?

The Phrenology display, Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum

The Phrenology display, Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum

This museum, its collection, and the wonderful historic building within which they are housed are well worth a visit and a day trip to Swansea could be easily filled with a trip to the Swansea Museum, the nearby Waterfront Museum, and a wander around the nearby dockland area. The museum is free to enter and has plenty to amuse, entertain, and educate those of all ages and interests, and with much to impart to interested historians of science.

Website: http://www.swansea.gov.uk/swanseamuseum

Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum

Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum