SPECIMEN: Exploring the Natural History of a Historic Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Prison


A biodiversity study of Eastern State Penitentiary, a historic Philadelphia, Pennsylvania prison, was inspired by a 19th-century prison inmate discovered making an insect collection in the exercise yard of his cell. Eastern State Penitentiary, maintained as a stabilized ruin and now a National Historic Landmark, operated from 1829 to 1971 in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia. The penitentiary is an urban island surrounded by 30-foot-high walls with more than 1,000 species of insects and other invertebrates documented within its 11-acre grounds. The animals and plants collected inside the walls of the prison are displayed as an artist installation, “Specimen,” a cabinet of curiosities housed in a prison cell. The exhibit invites public discussion of urban biodiversity, the importance of insects in our lives, science advocacy, and the history of natural history. The archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and its biological reference collections were invaluable resources in understanding and interpreting the research and installation. An important theme of Specimen underscores the role that the preservation of natural history collections plays in helping to understand the natural world past, present, and future, and in this case, against a backdrop of prison justice reform.

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