Science: Oldest US natural history museum offers rare peek

The Academy of Natural Sciences has never been one to brag. Its 225,000 annual visitors may associate the nation's oldest natural history museum solely with dioramas and dinosaurs, but behind the scenes there is groundbreaking research conducted by world-renowned scientists and an enviable collection of some 18 million specimens representing all manner of animal, vegetable and mineral.

"This is a rare opportunity to get a firsthand look at some of the most stunning, and sometimes bizarre, creatures you've ever seen," said Academy president and chief executive officer George Gephart Jr. "We can't wait to open our doors and show off nature's, and the Academy's, wondrous bounty."

The Academy will highlight a different part of its collection starting with minerals in April and ending with fossils in February 2013. Other months will focus on birds, fish, insects, mollusks, amphibians and reptiles, plants and mammals.

An accompanying exhibition, "The Academy at 200: The Nature of Discovery," puts dozens of the academy's show-stopping treasures on public display and highlights research that museum scientists are conducting worldwide on hot topics of climate change, biodiversity, water quality and invasive species.

New initiatives include an affiliation forged last year with Drexel University for collaborative education and research efforts and a popular lecture series on environmental issues and policy. A five-year institutional plan to be completed by June will examine additional ways to keep the museum relevant entering its third century, said Sara Hertz, vice president for strategic initiatives.

As species continue to become extinct, the images and specimens preserved in the Academy's collections will become even more crucial, said Doug Wechsler, head of the museum's Visual Resources for Ornithology, the world's most comprehensive collection of bird photographs with 150,000 images and growing.