Lansing Shepard is co-author of a fascinating new book celebrating the 150and anniversary of the Bell Museum on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota.
Along with Don Luce, Barbara Coffin and Gwen Schagrin, Shepard documents the story of a Minnesota cultural institution that moved in 2018 to its new location, where it continues its original mission of conducting cutting-edge scientific research, while informing Minnesotans in innovative ways about the natural world in which they live — and have lived.
Title A natural curiosity: the history of the bell museum ($34.95. University of Minnesota Press), the beautifully illustrated book recounts the high hopes of the visionaries who founded the bell in 1872, as well as the equally high hopes and dedication of its supporters and leaders over the past century and a half.
Below, Shepard talks about the bell and its importance to Minnesota — and to the people of Minnesota. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: The Legislature founded the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History in 1872. Why?
A: The intention was to conduct a geological and natural history survey to assess the state’s natural resources. It was all about understanding what was commercially exploitable, such as timber and agriculture. The Minnesota investigation was unique because it was placed at the University of Minnesota and not within a state agency. The Minnesota survey was also intended to create a baseline for further study of state resources. Additionally, a natural history museum was to be created so that the public could view the birds and other specimens, as well as the information gathered. At this point in American history, enough resources were beginning to disappear that it became increasingly important to know what was left before it was gone.
Q: Where did James Ford Bell, whose name graced the original museum, fit in?
A: Bell was the founder of General Mills and an avid outdoorsman and conservationist, which he shared with Thomas Sadler Roberts, a noted ornithologist who was the museum’s third director. Like Roberts, Bell understood what was happening with the country’s natural resources. Largely because of this realization, the museum became a personal Bell project. It is clear that without his financial and political support, the museum would not have existed.
Q: The latest interpretation of the museum, now called the Bell Museum, opened in 2018 and is widely considered a spectacular achievement. However, its mission, although greatly expanded in its methods of informing the public, is globally the same as that of its predecessor: to inventory and collect specimens of State resources to be studied and conserved. A massive business yesterday and today.
A: This is especially true considering that the original “museum” only consisted of two rooms. Today, the museum houses more than a million specimens.
Q: “Natural history” is a broad and often misunderstood term. What does it mean and why is it important?
A: The science of choice, natural history has risen, fallen and resurrected over the 150 years of the Bell Museum’s history. Essentially, natural history provides an understanding of the many changes that have occurred over time in the world’s flora and fauna. This is particularly valuable in the context of changes to our environment, such as the presence and retreat of glaciers, and valuable also given the many human-related changes to our environment that have occurred throughout history. . By collecting and documenting diverse specimens, museums such as the Bell can help researchers and the public understand these changes over time, in part so that we can better appreciate our present times.
Q: The success of the new Bell Museum, which also houses the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium, is largely due to its modern, innovative design and the multiple media forms it uses to invite the public and help them understand the world in which we live. The “old” James Ford Bell Natural History Museum, by contrast, often depended on lectures and photographs, in addition to its Minnesota habitat dioramas and other exhibits, to communicate to the public.
A: Television has changed everything for the museum, as for many facets of society. People who, before his advent, were happy enough to attend lectures at the museum were in many cases content to stay home and watch similar presentations on television. Other societal and technological changes that affected the museum accelerated in the 1960s. The environmental movement, for example, created an explosion of interest in films of animals and the like. The bell and its leaders reacted in their innovative way. Yet the relevance of the museum, so to speak, has declined, as has the relevance of other natural history museums. At this time, the science of natural history was also suffering relative to other emerging disciplines, such as ecology, molecular biology, and genetics. As a result, financing the Bell became a challenge, as did its position within the university.
Q: Was that in the 1980s?
A: Yes, generally. But eventually, natural history withstood these challenges, as it became very clear that to understand ecology and evolution, to name just two examples, genetics can only get you so far. . Understanding evolution and what drives it is the daily bread of La Cloche and all natural history museums. As part of this, you need to understand the relationships and hierarchy between the various flora and fauna – again in the context of changes in the environment over time. In this way, we can better understand not only the “present” of the Earth, but also our present, as well as the past from which they developed.
Q: As the 2000s approached, to survive and thrive, the bell essentially needed to reinvigorate its public face. Otherwise, few people outside of academia would know of the museum’s work, however valuable.
A: Bell’s board and staff knew as early as the 1990s that they needed a new facility. Although ultimately successful, the process to secure funding and a construction site was very complicated. To succeed as a modern museum, its architecture had to be correct and the many forms of high-tech entertainment and education that parents and especially children expect today had to be incorporated. The Bell has long been a leader in these types of communication efforts, most notably with the advent of its Touch and See room in 1968.
Q: While recounting the museum’s 150 years of challenges and achievements, the Bell commemorative book ends on a high note with the success of the “new” Bell.
A: Public response to the new museum and the planetarium within it has been tremendous — while the museum is doing all the scientific work, and more, it was originally commissioned to do.