From Reading Room to Exhibit Gallery

She has hosted heads of state and congressmen, actors, actresses, and some of the world’s most prominent scientists. Now the grand dame of historic spaces is getting ready to welcome a wider audience of important people — the general public.

After a yearlong renovation, the elegant Library Reading Room at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University will open its doors as a new exhibition gallery on Sunday, March 29 with the exhibit Wildlife Photographer of the Year. The renovation creates the first new large space dedicated to exhibits in a decade.

The Library Reading Room is now called the William B. Dietrich Gallery, in recognition of The William B. Dietrich Foundation’s generous support of a major part of the renovation. The gallery will be dedicated to exhibits and experiences that will appeal particularly to adults.

“This is an absolutely remarkable space, and we’re thrilled to offer our visitors a brand new museum experience,” said Academy President and CEO Scott Cooper. “In this phase of our ongoing efforts to reimagine the museum experience, we’re focusing on our adult audience who want to engage with the natural sciences in new and exciting ways, such as through the arts.”

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the first exhibit that will occupy the Dietrich Gallery. On view through Aug. 23, the exhibit showcases 100 of the world’s best nature photography and wildlife photojournalism. The gallery also will be available to rent for conferences, speaking engagements, weddings, and other special events.

artist rendering
Rendering of the reimagined library gallery by JacobsWyper Architects

The dramatic 3,000-square-foot Dietrich Gallery features a 22-foot-high coffered ceiling, two-story-tall windows, and a beautiful wooden floor that had been covered by carpet for decades. The renovation preserves the principal architectural elements of the room, while modernizing its lighting, electrical, acoustic, safety, and security systems.

Built in 1910 — 34 years after the institution moved to its current location—the Reading Room has been used for more than a century by students and researchers, many traveling to Philadelphia to consult the museum’s world-renowned collection of rare books, unique papers, natural history journals, photographs, art, and artifacts. Those materials, still available to students, researchers and staff, have been rehoused in a new Library Research Center immediately next to the Dietrich Gallery.

The library’s historic reading room was often used to show important parts of the Academy’s collections to visiting researchers and prominent speakers who have included well-known scientists Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, explorer Robert Ballard, photographer Ansel Adams, and natural history broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. Prominent government officials from both political parties also came to speak or see objects in the library, including Vice President Al Gore, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and John Kerry, and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

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The historic Reading Room with portraits of the Academy’s founders was a thoughtful space for researchers and for small-scale exhibitions.

Two heads of state — British Prime Minister John Major and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney — gave talks there. From the world of entertainment, Michael Jackson, Lauren Hutton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were among the Hollywood notables to visit the space, as were newscasters Dan Rather, Chris Wallace and Jim Lehrer.

The Library Research Center will be accessible to students, researchers and staff on weekdays. The total $3 million renovation project also included the McLean Wolf Rare Books Room, through the generosity of The McLean Contributionship, and the Morris Reading Room, through the generosity of Martha and I. Wistar Morris III of Villanova, Pa.


To read a story on the gallery from Philadelphia Business Journal, click here.

By Carolyn Belardo

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