Bell Museum celebrates its 150th anniversary. Things to see.

The Bell Museum has a great origin story. It began in 1872 as a “one-room cabinet of curiosities”.

Today, the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History has an elegant and fascinating home on the University’s St. Paul campus and plans to celebrate 150 years with exhibits and experiences throughout 2022. .

Looks like it’s time I got to the Bell. I was embarrassed to tell Bell staff that although I live only three miles from the museum and my family has a pet name for the woolly mammoth diorama that can be seen from Bell’s window on the avenue Larpenteur (we always shout “Hi, Todd!” when we pass, thanks to a great-niece who also named a barnyard squirrel Todd) – I had never been further inside than the gift shop and lobby.

Adrienne Wiseman, director of business and marketing at Bell, assured me that I was not alone. She often meets people who say they intended to quit. And it was time to take me for a ride.

The Bell, Minnesota’s official natural history museum, came into existence when ‘the state was just a baby,’ Wiseman said in the lobby of the museum’s ‘new’ house, which opened its doors in 2018.

Minnesota was entering its 14th year of statehood when the bell was officially founded on February 29, 1872. As the museum grew, it bounced around various buildings on the University of Minnesota campus, spending most of its years (1940-2017) on the Minneapolis Campus at 10 Church St. SE In the 1960s it was named for James Ford Bell, the founder and chairman of General Mills, who was also an early conservationist and benefactor.

Volunteer Laura Barber answers a question about the bear and wolf skins that 3-year-old Mae Schwartz explores at the Touch and See lab during the opening of the Bell Museum in St. Paul on July 14, 2018. (John Autey /PioneerPress)

Wiseman points out that the bell is a hands-on museum, and this is evident from the “Touch and See Lab” on the first floor. Visitors can touch the bones and fur and look through a microscope and marvel at the size of a whale’s vertebrae. Try to guess the size of an animal’s brain (I learned that I was right in my arguments with my cat when I told him that he has a brain the size of a walnut), see skins of snake, turtle shells, bones, rocks, wood. The Bell has 4,000 items in its educational collection, Wiseman says.

“The bread and butter of the museum is the families,” says Wiseman, many grandparents and grandchildren. “It’s an easy place to visit with children. Very welcoming. They can touch anything.

Upon entering the Touch and See Lab, children are asked about a huge prehistoric-looking bone. Dinosaur? It’s an elephant skull. There’s an array of bones (some real and some models) that visitors can, well, touch and see.

Planetarium

Bell Museum Planetarium
The Planetarium of the Bell Museum. (Courtesy of the Bell Museum)

We didn’t go inside to stargaze, but Wiseman says the museum’s planetarium shows are Bell originals. And each show is led by one person, so there is room for questions and discussions.

The planetarium is also a unique venue for “under the stars” weddings, with a hall for receptions nearby, Wiseman says, but that was closed for a time due to COVID.

Travels in Minnesota

The history of the bell is closely associated with the nature dioramas on the museum’s second floor, known as Minnesota Journeys. The old Bell Museum on the University of Minneapolis campus grew as exhibits were added. The new building was planned and designed for exhibitions, says Wiseman.

PHOTOS: Thousands turn out for the inauguration of the new Bell Museum

Exterior of the bell museum
The Bell Museum is celebrating its 150th anniversary. (Courtesy of the Bell Museum)

And it shows. Nature scenes are detailed and set behind exposure glass so clear you feel like you could reach out and pet a crouching wolf or scratch the back of an elk. The dioramas have been renovated and moved to the new museum.

Dioramas of hunting wolves, a moose in the mud, sandhill cranes and seven others take visitors on a nature excursion from the northern end of Minnesota to the south. “We always say you can see the whole state in one day,” Wiseman says.

Most states have only one biome, a large community of plants and animals. Minnesota has three biomes, according to Wiseman. They are represented in the dioramas.

As you make your way to the dioramas, fascinating exhibits illustrate the relationships between things, down to the cell level. How people, plants, animals and birds change. What does DNA tell us about a species? “The bell is more about asking the questions than having the answers,” Wiseman says.

Heck, even the old high school chemistry class favorite, the periodic table, is getting interesting in its own display.

The dioramas start with the life-size woolly mammoth (you know, Todd) and his pals in the Ice Age exhibit. Right next to Todd is a giant beaver that often surprises visitors as much as the Woolly One, says Wiseman. It’s enormous. And go to the back of the exhibit and through an archway into a room showing a video created for the bell by famed nature photographer Jim Brandenburg.

The diorama’s journey from north to south begins with “Moose at Gunflint Lake” in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in late September. Water lilies, gnarled tree roots and swampy mud at the edge of the forest set the scene for what appears to be a family of moose, with dad lifting his hoof out of the mud.

Next stop: “Wolves at Shovel Point.” Wiseman says she likes to ask visitors what they think the wolves are focusing on. Most point to a bird in a nearby tree, but look closely, there’s a deer in the distance. Shovel Point sits on the shore of Lake Superior in what is now Tettegouche State Park.

In the next diorama, it’s “Spring at Cascade River.” The focus is more on the river than on the creatures in the foreground – a fawn, an owl, many birds. The detail on the forest floor is incredible, with dried leaves amidst bright green plants that are beginning to emerge.

Over Otter Tail County, to see “Elk at Inspiration Peak,” the highest point in the county and one of the highest points in the state. It’s a fall scene with elk above the oak savannah of western Minnesota. Look closely to see late-blooming wildflowers and butterflies.

A woman checks the "sandhill crane" diorama during the grand opening of the Bell Museum in Saint-Paul on July 14, 2018.
A woman looks at the ‘Sandhill Crane’ diorama at the opening of the Bell Museum in St. Paul on July 14, 2018. (John Autey/Pioneer Press)

“Cranes in the Red River Valley” depicts over 100 sandhill cranes congregating just outside of Fertile, Minnesota, a pit stop during their annual migration in May. Take a good look and you will see that these are not all sandhill cranes. There are also whooping cranes, Wiseman says, which massed in their thousands but were nearly extinct, with only 15 surviving in the wild in 1941. You can see an example of a whooping crane up close in a nearby display case.

Continuing the visit, “Beavers at Lake Itasca” are, well, busy as you know what in late spring, gnawing on a tree, piling up branches for a dam at the source of the Mississippi near Park Rapids. According to Bell info, this diorama was completed in 1919 and is the oldest in the current Bell Museum. Wonder what they’d do if that fat beaver from the Ice Age diorama showed up?

Further in the Mississippi between Red Wing and Wabasha, “Pepin Lake Sand Point” has over 20 species of flapping and perching birds. You can almost smell the wet sand, and it’s not hard to imagine the croaking and screaming in the wind.

A path crosses “Big Wood”, with trampled leaves in the spring, wildflowers, ducks and it looks like a woodland creature has burrowed into the dirt to the side. Although Minnesota once had many more great woods, the one at Maplewood Park in Waseca is still intact. Wiseman says you can visit this real place.

This is another migration pit stop in “Snow Geese at Lake Traverse” on the southwest Minnesota/South Dakota border. (Yes to cross the state on this diorama tour.) The snow geese that occasionally bicker in the diorama are resting to continue their journey to their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic.

The last stop is “Tundra Swans in the Minnesota River Valley.” Another migratory group, the swans in the diorama head for the Arctic. Wiseman says the River Valley region depicted in the scene is close to what is now the Mall of America.

The sky, sunlight, moving animals, mud or wet sand or dry grass. “It’s all in the details, and that’s where they really, really do well,” Wiseman says.

And to have waited so long to visit the Bell was, on my part, really, really wrong. But I will come back. Maybe for one of the special events celebrating 150 years.

Bell’s Annual Party

"Gaia" is an art installation that shows the Earth from the perspective of space.  It will be at the Bell Museum this summer
“Gaia” is an art installation that shows the Earth from the perspective of space. It will be at the Bell Museum this summer, as part of the museum’s 150th anniversary celebration. (Courtesy of the Natural Environment Research Council)

Until October 2: “Seeing Birds” – Gives visitors a chance to explore birds, their environments and their evolution.

February 3-6: “Space Fest” The fourth annual Space Fest returns in person this year with hands-on activities, conversations with NASA astronomy experts and a first look at Bell’s original production “Mars: The Ultimate Journey.”

April 7-9: “Statewide Star Party” – The third annual Minnesota Statewide Star Party involves schools, colleges, libraries, museums, parks and other local organizations with family-friendly events that include free outdoor sky viewing air.

July 19-August. 14: ‘Gaia’ – British artist Luke Jerram’s ‘Museum of the Moon’ installation was in the Bell Hall in 2019. This is another piece by Jerram, showing the Earth from a perspective as if you were in space.

bell museum

  • When: Celebrating 150 years in 2022, currently open Wednesday to Sunday. Closed on some public holidays.
  • Or: 2088 Larpenteur Avenue West, Saint-Paul
  • Admission: $12 adults, $10 seniors, $9 3-21, 2 and under free, U of M students free.
  • Information: 612-626-9660 or bellmuseum.umn.edu

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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