Whitenight and the Wagner

Art — Produced by Michael O’Reilly

The Wagner Institute of Free Science has stood at 1700 W. Montgomery Ave in Philadelphia for over 150 years – it has remained largely unchanged for most of its life. The Executive Director, Susan Glassman, tells us that the Wagner is like a museum of a museum. Central to its mission is the “free” admission to the displays, dioramas and lectures it still maintains and offers. One of these lectures finds John Whitenight (his real name) holding forth on his book, UNDER GLASS: A Victorian Obsession, an encyclopedic compendium of the Victorian “parlor shade” (or, in 2013, what we commonly refer to as a “glass dome”). In this lecture, Whitenight implores his audience to travel back to the 1800′s (not too difficult surrounded by the Wagner lecture hall) when mourning was represented by weaving into the shape of a flower the hair of your dead beloved, and amusement was found in robot birds that sang real songs and a monkey automaton that really smoked. Whitenight and the Wagner remind you of a time in Philadelphia that these and many more curiosities could be found under glass domes in your parlor or behind a vitrine in your local museum, all of them waiting to give comfort to those curious about the wonders of Victorian technology and the state of the natural world.

Web Extras

The Wagner: A Museum of a Museum

Edited by Kate Llona — The Wagner Free Institute of Science is unique in that it has not changed the presentation of exhibits since the 19th Century. At the Wagner Institute, visitors are able to see animals, fossils, shells and minerals displayed under glass just as Victorian visitors would have in the 1800s. The founder of the museum, William Wagner, was a Philadelphia merchant who wanted to share his fascination with the natural world with the common people of Philadelphia. Today, The Wagner Institute respects his ideals by remaining a free institution and hosting lectures and classes for the public.

In this web extra, Friday Arts visits The Wagner Free Institute and explores its vast collection of Victorian taxidermy. John Whiteknight, author of Under Glass, Susan Glassman and Abby Sullivan, the Executive Director and the Program and Communicutions Co-Ordinator of the Wagner respectively, share with us what they find special about The Wagner.

Assorted Automata

Edited by Lisa Levonian — Author John Whitenight shares pieces from his 19th century dome collection. Whitenight possesses a passion for the decorative natural arts created in the Victorian Era. During this period, art was placed under glass domes or shades to protect and preserve the work. The automata mechanicals shown reflect the creativity and attention to detail artists used, during this era. For more information on Whitenight’s book, Under Glass, A Victorian Obsession, please visit

The Smoking Monkey Marquis

Edited by Lisa LevonianUnder Glass, A Victorian Obsession, author John Whitenight explains the mechanics behind one of the pieces from his private collection. The Smoking Monkey Marquis automaton was created by Gustave Vichy in 1875. This piece embraces the whimsical nature of artists during the 19th century.

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