Academy of Natural Sciences displays 200 years of curiosities — including ‘Frankensquid’

For its 200th anniversary, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia is unveiling “Frankensquid.”

The flying squid had been dissected, then sewn up, and is now floating in an antique glass jar on the second floor of the academy’s building on the Parkway. If you look carefully, you might notice that the sepia-colored blob of flesh and tentacles is actually upside-down.

“That’s a nod towards an early academy story,” said Dr. Paul Callomon, the manager of the malacology collection, i.e. mollusks.

“One of the first mounted dinosaur skeletons at the academy was an enormous aquatic animal that had its head on the wrong end. And a member of the public pointed this out,” he said “So ‘Frankensquid’ is here as an homage to the role of the public in putting us right.”

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After 200 years and 18 million specimens in its archives, the academy has plenty of stories. “Frankensquid” is displayed on an 80-foot wall broken up into cubbies, like a giant cabinet of curiosities. Scientists from the academy’s fields of research are able to display their best wares, including ornithology (birds), herpetology (amphibians and reptiles), ichthyology (fish), and, what the academy’s best known for, paleontology (dinosaurs).

“We had the opportunity to display some of the greatest hits of our collections, which for most of us is a very hard task,” said Callomon. “The academy’s collections are gigantic. We’ve been at it for 200 years, we never throw anything away, and a larger area of this building in terms of square footage is taken up by collections than by the public museum. Not many people know that.”

An invitation to explore

Opposite the wall of specimens, the exhibition — “The Academy at 200: The Nature of Discovery” — features five rooms where visitors can enter re-creations of field research locations, such as a tent from which to study birds, a Mongolian plain, and a coral reef.

With piped-in sound effects and hands-on displays, the immersive exhibits hint at the adventure of field research.

“We really wanted to let people see what’s it’s like to go into the rainforest and collect birds — you live in a tent for weeks on end,” said Jennifer Sontchi, acting director of exhibits at the academy. “What it’s like to collect water samples in a marsh — you wear waders and reach into the mud and pull out core samples. It’s actually quite glamorous, in a way.”

The academy is popularly known to parents, kids, and former kids as the place with the dinosaurs. As proud as Sontchi is to have that reputation, the exhibits of the academy’s bicentennial year stress the robust research of its staff of scientists.

For the first time, the Academy of Natural Sciences will offer tours of research areas normally closed to the public. There is also an exhibition of how their life-size dioramas were created. (Yes, they are all real animals.)

“I’ve met a number of people who were lured into the museum by the dinosaurs, but came out learning something about minerals,” said Sontchi. “And that’s great.”

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