The Wagner Museum

Michael suggested we vista the Wagner Museum – ostensibly an un-reformed Victorian natural history collection ranging from rocks to man in neat systematic order. How could I resist?

The Wagner Free Insitute of Science - What a warm welcome!

William Wagner 1796-1885 - 90 years! Quite a specimen himself!

Strangely enough there is very little on their website – too far in the future for the Wagner? Only a nice daguerreotype of founder Wagner, the briefest bio in the universe ” William Wagner (1796-1885) was a Philadelphia merchant, philanthropist, and amateur scientist” and the following brief review from 1870 – “The Wagner houses a large nucleus for illustration, and where the student can perfect himself in the studies made readily available by the Institution. The collections are the most extensive in the country, and of a superior order, embracing a serried rank of more than half a million of specimens. Every person interested in the natural sciences could further benefit from the enrichment this rich and beautiful collection of specimens offer.”

Stepping back in time - I forgot my morning coat!

The first floor corridors are lined with original Audobon prints!

The skunk was my favorite, but they wouldn't let me take him home.

And then on the second floor there is row after row of beautiful cabinet work with hand-floated glass and tens of thousands of geological and zoological specimens. Damn I just realized I must have missed the ENTIRE plant kingdom! There’s another trip right there.

Prof. Miller deep in thought.

All of the specimens are exquisitely labelled with fine ink copperplate lettering on aging yellowing paper.

"The Creator has an inordinate fondness for beetles" J.B.S. Haldane and bees

Echidna - I'd never seen a monotreme skeleton before.

Arrrrggghhhh! Barnacles!

The smallest egg in the museum

There's even a nice little section on practical taxonomy - cute, eh?

Some seem to resent the treatment!

Some just loose it completely!!

This last critter reminds me now of the ESP which I visited on my last day. The Eastern States Penitentiary – the first Penitentiary (place of penitence) in North America. More on this incredible archive of suffering in a future post.


I spent the last few days in Philadelphia catching up with old friends and colleagues and taking part in the Center for Art in Wood’s (nice videos on this site!) Challenge VIII event in conjunction with the Bartram Gardens – more (probably much more) on this later. Its been more than 8 years since I last set foot in this town and I’d forgotten how interesting a city it is.

I stayed with my longest standing friend in the US, the incredibly talented and charming Michael Hurwitz, his sculptor wife Mami Kato and vivacious daughter Marina. They have a great house and enviable studio space in the middle of the Old City. Michael showed us around his studio space and gave us an inside peek at some of the pieces he is working on. I believe Michael is one of the most talented and accomplished furniture craftsmen in the US at the moment and its always an inspiration and education seeing inside his working processes.

Michael explaining it all - well, some of it.

His action packed studio

We also got to see behind the scenes in Mami Kato’s adjacent studio. Mami’s work draws on the material culture and her associated memories of northern Japan where she was raised.

New work in the making

Tiny handmade rice straw brushes waiting to be inserted into a sculpture

I was lucky enough to get a chance to see some of her completed works in a show at the Asian Art Initiative. Delicate but robust work with an intriguing and compelling materiality! In a 3-person group show entitled “Moving Through Memory” on until November 18th – see it if you live anywhere near.

Love reading wall labels!

Hand Wrapped with Butterbur Leaf

Umbilical Field

Umbilical Field - detail

Hydrostatis (looking through version) with Don Miller Jr. and Michael Hurwitz

Later in the day we went to a totally enthralling little museum called the Wagner Free Institute of Science. Really cool! I’ll write about it in the next post.

Then to top of a great day, Michael took me to enjoy another museum piece in a way; Bob and Barbara’s Lounge. Famous for its ‘liquor drinking music’, exceptional Hammond B3 action and the classic “special” (a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a shot of Jim Beam for just $3.50). The current incarnation of the in-house band “The Crowd Pleasers” were in fine form by the second set – The Crowd Pleasers consists of Bob Hampton on the drums, Howard “Candy Man” Candy on the Hammond B-3 Organ, and Wilbur DuPont on the tenor sax – he has the most amazing and huge hands. There’s a great article about the original “Crowd Pleasers” led by the late, great Nate Wiley and Bob and Barbara’s Lounge here.

The Crowd Pleasers - take it Wilbur

The Color of the Sky

Lately, I’ve been enjoying reading Victoria Finlay’s wonderful cultural history of color – Color; A Natural History of the Palette. She takes the rainbow and teases it apart through a series of delightful stories of her own travels in search of pigment interspersed with rich tales of the history of our use of, creation of, and trading in color. Highly recommended!

Here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite.

“What did I learn at art school? I learned that art is painting, not painted.” Harvey Fierstein. (p.11)

“We sat in the half dark drinking salty tea, and he talked about how a deity appeared to a boy in a dream. ” I can tell you,” the deity said, “how to find everything you want in the world: riches, friends, power. Even wisdom.” “How can I do that?” asked the boy eagerly. It is easy, he was told. All you need to do is close your eyes and not think about the color sea green. The boy confidently closed his eyes, but his thoughts were full of waves and jade and the sky on a misty morning. He tried to think of red, or of trumpets, or the wind in the trees, but the sea kept flowing into his mind like a tide. Over the years, remembering his dream, he would often sit quietly and try not to think of green. But he never quite succeeded. And then one day, when he was an old man, he did it: he sat for a long time without even a flicker of color in his thoughts. and he opened his eyes and smiled – and when my monk friend got to this point, he opened his own eyes and smiled. “He smiled,” said the monk, “because he realized he already had everything he wanted in the world.” (p.256)


The nineteenth century  British scientist and motivator John Tyndall always said that he did his best thinking about the nature of light and colors while he was walking in the mountains. He took his holidays in the Alps. It was a place where his mind could be clear, he said, and it was also a place where, on sunny days, the sky was clear enough to think about. He was an educator and one of the best. He would stand in front of audiences at the School of Mines, and he would teach people how to use their imagination to understand science. To explain the color of the sky, he would use an image of the sea.

Think of an ocean, he would say, and think of the waves crashing against the land. If they came across a huge cliff then all the waves would stop; if they met a rock, then only the smaller waves would be affected; while a pebble would change the course of only the tiniest waves washing against the beach. This is what happens with light from the sun. Going through the atmosphere the biggest wavelengths – the red ones – are usually unaffected, and it is only the smallest ones – the blue and violet ones – which are scattered by the tiny pebble-like molecules in the sky, giving the human eye the sensation of blue.

Tyndall thought it was particles of dust which did it; Einstein later proved that even molecules of oxygen and hydrogen are big enough to scatter the blue rays and leave the red alone. But the effect of both theories is the same. And at sunset, when the air is polluted with molecules of dust – or, over the sea, little salt particles – both of which act as “rocks” rather than “pebbles” in disturbing the wavelengths of light, the sky will seem orange or even red. When Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, shooting jets of volcanic dust into the sky and killing three hundred people, the sunsets throughout South Asia were crimson. I remember smiling, ignorant of the reason, thinking how beautiful they were. (pp. 304-5)