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One of Minnesota's most beloved museums is finally getting a new building. Will that ruin its old-school charm?

Bell Museum diarama
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
The building was expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, but by the 1980s, the plumbing was breaking down, the basement frequently flooded and rodents had invaded.

Tucked away on an overgrown corner on the edge of the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, the state’s only natural history museum is easy to miss.

The 75-year-old building is covered in green vines and obscured from the street by giant trees. Inside, it’s dark, the only light coming from illuminated dioramas of animals that have been stuffed for nearly 100 years. On most weekdays, the place is quiet except for the piped-in sounds of chirping birds and gurgling streams coming from the sound system.

The Bell Museum of Natural History is used to being overlooked. From its beginnings, the museum has served as an oft-neglected offspring of state politicians (who established the museum in 1872) and the university (which was designated by lawmakers to run it).

Never was that status more obvious than when it came to the building itself. Years ago, when it began to crumble, the university pushed to build a new state-of-the-art natural history museum, not unlike the more prominent natural history museums in cities like Chicago and New York.

But lawmakers shied away — at least those who cared enough to know anything about the place. Some legislators didn’t even know the state had a natural history museum. Bell supporter Alice Hausman, a DFL representative from St. Paul, remembers one colleague asking if they could change the name: “What is it, a museum for bells?”

Today, after a decade-long fight and a clever and historic legislative deal that finally secured funding for the project, a new $64 million museum on the university's St. Paul campus appears to be on track for a summer 2018 opening. But even as officials prepare for the big move, the Bell Museum once again finds itself in an odd position — caught between those who love the current museum's historic digs and dusty dioramas, and those who want to take the Bell into the 21st century. 

Diorama-rama

The Minnesota Legislature created the state’s first (and so far only) natural history museum on March 1, 1872, when lawmakers passed "an act to provide for a geological and natural history survey of the state.” As part of the act, the state also required the preparation of natural and geological “specimens.” Immediately, governance of the museum was handed over to the university.

It was first housed in a single room in a building on the Minneapolis campus. But as the collections and staff at the museum grew, a new building was discussed.

James Ford Bell, the founder of General Mills, was a passionate conservationist who was pushing the university to add a wolf diorama to its collection. In the 1930s, hunters were killing the state’s wolves for bounty, but Bell wanted to see them depicted beautifully in their natural environment. A motivated Bell put up half the cost ($150,000) for a new building to house the dioramas. Fundraising and the federal government paid for the rest.

In the 1930s, hunters were killing the state’s wolves for bounty
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
In the 1930s, hunters were killing the state’s wolves for bounty, but Bell wanted to see them depicted beautifully in their natural environment.

The building on the corner of University Avenue and Church Street officially opened to the public in 1940. Francis Lee Jaques, a Minnesota native, left the American Museum of Natural History in New York to create the Bell’s dioramas — three-dimensional models using animals, plants and paintings to capture recreate real-life settings — that are still considered to be some of the best in the nation. Eventually, the building was named after Bell, its dedicated backer.

As the public and school groups started touring the museum, the Bell’s staff and collections grew. The building was expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, but by the 1980s, the plumbing was breaking down, the basement frequently flooded and rodents had invaded. Worse, the building’s temperature fluctuations threatened to damage the collections.

This time, expansion wouldn’t do the trick. The university knew it needed a new building. 

The battle of St. Paul

A new facility would be best suited to be located on the roomier St. Paul campus, officials decided, where many of the state’s agricultural and other natural history collections were already housed. But the amount of funding needed to build a new museum meant university officials had to make their case at the state Capitol. Planning started in the mid 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the building’s most crucial supporter, Hausman, the on-again-off-again chair of the House Capital Investment Committee, decided to take on the role of chief advocator. 

In 2008, the Bell Museum project made its first appearance in a bonding bill, the large package of construction projects approved every other year. But Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty pushed back on the project, saying the more modern Science Museum of Minnesota and the Minnesota Zoo already served those educational roles for the state. Using his power to line-item veto construction bills, he nixed funding for the museum. He did it again in 2009.

Then, in 2011, a critical player joined the Bell Museum’s team: the Minnesota Planetarium Society. The Twin Cities lost its planetarium in 2002, when the old Minneapolis Central Library was demolished. Like the Bell Museum, the planetarium had tried repeatedly to get state funding but failed. Under the new deal, the two programs would share lobbying firepower and a final space.

The James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History in 1942.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History in 1942.

But after so many setbacks, the university was weary. “At a certain point, the university said we are never going to get this into the Legislature’s bonding bill, so we have to give up, because we have all these other projects we have to move on to,” Hausman said. “My problem was that I wouldn't give up.”

In 2014, Hausman was back as the chair of the Capital Investment Committee and pushing for the Bell Museum project. But University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler didn’t include the museum in his list of priority projects. It didn’t appear on DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s list either, nor that of state senators.

So Hausman launched an intensive lobbying effort. She had help from the Advisory Board of the Bell Museum, which decided to pitch in despite the university’s lack of support. “It was a little bold not being part of the university request, and made it challenging in many ways. They had other projects, and I understand that,” said advisory board member Lee Pfannmuller. “The Bell had tried many times and just couldn’t get there.”

Rep. Alice Hausman
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Rep. Alice Hausman

The lobbying team met with dozens of legislators and blanketed their offices with fliers intended to educate them on the role of the museum. They also pulled in high-profile supporters to help. Meteorologist and former TV personality Paul Douglas wrote opinion pieces and appeared on TV to talk about how the Twin Cities was the only major metropolitan area without a planetarium.

Despite their lobbying, the project didn’t make it into the final bonding bill sent to Dayton. There wasn’t enough money to accomplish everything everyone wanted that year, but the state did have a surplus of cash. Hausman enlisted the support of then-House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, who called Kaler personally. Together, they worked out a deal where the university would borrow $51.5 million for the project and the state would use cash to pay the debt service on the bonds over a span of 25 years.

Over the objection of conservative lawmakers, the deal passed during the final hours on the last day of the session.

Setbacks on campus

Under the approved plans, a nearly 90,000-square-foot museum would be constructed at the southwest corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland Avenues and act as a gateway into the university’s St. Paul campus. The new space would accommodate more visitors than the old building could, not to mention a 120-seat, fully digital planetarium. 

But the new plans for the Bell, true to the history of the Bell, soon ran into trouble. The new dean of the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, Brian Buhr, was a former professor of applied economics. He looked at estimates on the project — including the exhibit expenses and costs for moving and incorporating the dioramas into the new space — and pointed out that the numbers didn’t add up.

Faced with higher costs to the project, the university’s initial response was to scale back the size of the building by about 30 percent.

Hausman said she was informed that the reason to scale back the project was to put more money in the museum’s visuals — the dioramas — but she also learned that the building’s basement had been eliminated in the new designs. Without the basement for storage and mechanicals, the main floor of the museum would have to be smaller, defeating the purpose of creating a larger space to accommodate more students.

A rendering of the new Bell Museum.
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota
A rendering of the new Bell Museum.

Hausman went back to work, recruiting old friends and new ones to help. Key in her crusade was newly elected Board of Regents member Michael Hsu.

“The story didn’t sound right to me,” Hsu said. “It was all about money, basically. I was pushing for the fact that we made a promise to build this building a certain way, and how are going to do what we promised?”

Before long, with a little more lobbying from Hsu and advisory board members, Kaler was on record calling to restore the size of the project. That meant maximizing the state’s $3.5 million contribution every year and raising about $6 million more.

In the end, Kaler became a critical supporter of the project, Pfannmuller said. “We couldn’t have done it without him stepping in at a few critical moments,” she said. 

The next phase

Sitting in a small, well-lit office on the top floor of the Bell Museum, Beverly Anglum seemed relieved. Recruited to the museum as development director a few months ago, she recently took the lead on the project after the sudden departure of Bell Museum Director Susan Weller, who got a new job in Nebraska.

Beverly Anglum
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Beverly Anglum

Her role has been primarily fundraising and communicating the vision for the museum to stakeholders and potential donors. The museum still wants to raise at least $15 million to go toward exhibits and set up an endowment to support its operations in the years to come. But that’s been hard to do over the last year, with plans in flux and funding in question.

“It’s getting much easier now because what we are doing is getting clearer. It’s better because we’ve got the bulk of the funding,” she said. “In the last few months, a lot of the confusion that was out there is much more cohesive and in a good place, where I can tell a really compelling story.”

On the exhibit side, longtime Bell Museum curator Don Luce says his focus is figuring out the museum’s new layout and incorporating the planetarium. For now, the idea is to start visitors at the beginning of the universe before zooming in to focus on Minnesota and humans’ relationship with the environment. Most — but not all — of the old Jaques dioramas will make the move over to the new building. Anglum wants to use technology similar to Google Glass to give visitors an interactive look at the old dioramas.

The Bell has also contracted with Minneapolis advertising agency Martin Williams, which is looking into what makes the natural history museum stand out. In terms of branding, the museum doesn’t want to compete with the Science Museum of Minnesota, Anglum said. It’s more about figuring out what makes the Bell Museum different. The planetarium has been key in that respect, as well as the museum’s famous dioramas.

The Bell does have its die-hard fans, and the idea of leaving the old building doesn’t please everyone. A retired employee of the American Museum of Natural History in New York recently tried to start a letter-writing campaign urging university officials to leave the Jaques dioramas where they were intended — in the old building.

The effort fizzled, but Luce said his challenge is to preserve certain aspects of the old Bell while bringing the experience to the next level.

Don Luce
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Don Luce

“People see it as an antiquated museum; some people might say it’s very old fashioned and very quaint and a throwback to an earlier era. We are seen as different. The diorama halls as they are, they are kind of dark, dusty and not changing very much,” Luce said. “It’ll be an uphill battle to change that perception. There are obviously people who love the dioramas, who are upset about changing them; they love the building, they don't want that change. But there are not enough of those people.”

As for the old art deco building, it’s still unclear what will happen to it. It could be a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places, or it could be incorporated into the nearby College of Design. In any case, it’s unlikely the building will go away, which will come as a comfort to the thousands of Minnesota who visited the museum as schoolchildren.

“Right now the challenge is you come two times to the Bell Museum,” said Anglum: when you're a school kid and when you bring your own kid. “That’s not unlike other places. But what we need to figure out is how to get that third and fourth visit.”

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Comments (2)

Beloved Bell Museum

The possible closing - for GOOD - of the classic art deco Bell Museum of Natural History on the U.of Minnesota campus brings back such wonderful memories to me, a 79 year-old graduate of
the University: My father often took me with him to special events in the museum's auditorium - memories of which feed into recollections of that man to this day. I think that part of his fondness for the place was the building itself, since he had begun his own studies at the "U." in the field of architecture...
Those "dusty, dark hallways" were part of the building's mystique, and the magnificent dioramas helped to turn Dad's eldest child into a rabid-supporter of the natural world and wildlife in general.
Construction of a new facility on the St. Paul Campus would be more accessible for the long-term, but, in my mind, it is essential that that former building be valued - and given the status it deserves:
perhaps as part of the College of Design!

Sadly, the current

Sadly, the current administration of the University is not favorably inclined toward lovely old buildings with architectural interest and tons of vital U-related history to boost their cachet. Those interested in preserving the Bell Museum's original building would be well-advised to keep their eye on it as this new move occurs: the U recently has been eating away at historically-designated East Bank buildings, by tearing them down (in one case, for empty space, in another, for a bus stop, in another, for what looks like an el cheapo pre-fab).

One of the problems is precisely that Design unit that may inherit the old Bell. Roday's preference is to tear down and start clean, to do something that doesn't entail having to deal with structural problems related to age. It's a bias against saving anything.

One is amazed at the U's reluctance to support a new Bell! Why is that?