By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The Academy of National Sciences in Philadelphia, the oldest museum of its kind in the United States, is celebrating its bicentennial with special programs and a year-long exhibit about its history.
Founded in the city of Brotherly Love by seven amateur naturalists in 1812 in rented space over a shop, the museum has grown in the past 200 years to include 17 million artifacts, ranging from dinosaur bones and live butterflies to thousands of plants and shells.
During the past two centuries it has also become a world leader in research into biodiversity and the environment.
"The Academy of Natural Sciences continues to be a leading international center of scientific study two centuries after its founders gathered to share their collections and their enthusiasm for the natural world," said Robert McCracken Peck, the center's historian and senior fellow.
Peck, 59, is more or less a lifer when it comes to the academy. Sitting recently in a wood-paneled library that looked as though it had been imported from the 1800s, he remembered visiting the building when he was four.
"I used to take classes here when I was little," said Peck, who has written a history of the academy that will be released this month, to mark the anniversary.
"Probably as far as I can remember I loved coming here," he said.
The museum, which has been part of Philadelphia's Drexel University since last year - will celebrate the anniversary with a special exhibit, "The Academy at 200: The Nature of Discovery."
It will feature items from its enormous collection -- colorful, mounted insects, jars of mysterious creatures, animal skulls, shark teeth and a mounted skeleton of an Irish elk that lived 10,000 years ago.
The exhibit will explain how climate change has affected the Earth, include research about a coral reef in the Bahamas and how pollution and the weather has impacted the creatures that live there.
It will also show the impact of Marcellus Shale drilling on the environment and feature a laboratory where dinosaur fossils are prepared for study.
Panel discussions on sustainability and the environment will also be included in the celebrations. On October 11 and 12, scientists from around the country will gather at the center to discuss biological diversity, with part of the symposium available to the public.
And for culinary enthusiasts chefs from Philadelphia and the surrounding area will cook a special dinner on October 27 based on some of the center's collection of birds, insects and shellfish.
"The Academy of Natural Sciences helped to increase Philadelphia's international reputation as a leading center for scientific thought throughout the 19th century," said Peck.
Now, he said, most people think of it as a dinosaur museum.
"It's really the library of life," Peck added.
(Editing by Patricia Reaney)