Bell Museum unveils plans for new facility in Falcon Heights

Bell Museum of Natural History officials earlier this month unveiled plans to build a new $57.5 million state-of-the-art facility in Falcon Heights to replace its “outdated and inflexible facility” on the East Bank.

Officials of the 142-year-old museum have been waiting for years to secure state funding for a new building, but say they are hopeful that their fortunes might soon change, thanks in part to an innovative plan that would combine the museum with a 120-seat planetarium.

The new Bell Museum of Natural History and Planetarium would be built on a 12-acre site on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, on the southwest corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues. It would be only about 10,000 square feet larger than the existing museum site, at 10 S.E. Church St. in Minneapolis, but would triple the organization’s capacity to serve school groups, officials said.

Parke Kunkle, the museum advisory board’s planetarium program chair, said “the extra capacity” would help advance its mission to steer more students toward careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Steve Birke, a retired Target executive and chair of the citizen’s advisory board for the museum and the planetarium, said the project also “addresses the museum’s outdated and inflexible facility on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank.”

The museum’s education programs served 59,000 students and families from across the state over the past two years, officials say. Still, at times, “larger school class sizes and our limited facility” forced the museum to turn some visitors away, according to Birke. The planned site would set aside five acres of land for future expansion to add an outdoor science and nature observatory.

“Planning and fundraising have been underway for nearly 20 years, and the Twin Cities have gone without a large public planetarium for over a decade,” Birke said in a news release. Museum officials have already raised about $5 million, through private donations and some federal funding, to hire an engineering firm to conduct “predesign work” and plan to come up with $6 million for the new museum, Birke said. Construction could begin as early as next year.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, has introduced two bills in the State Legislature seeking $55 million—$4 million of which would be for building outdoor classrooms—in funds for the new facility.

“I am cautiously optimistic that 2014 will be our year. And I say that (because) we have a much stronger proposal than before,” Birke said in a recent interview. The museum, established in 1872, boasts a vast collection of biological and geological specimens and an art collection valued at $20 million, officials said. In 2011, the Minnesota Planetarium Society “transferred its programs and assets” to the museum, “creating an integrated organization with ever greater potential to address Minnesota’s STEM education needs,” officials said.

Libor Jany, a St. Anthony Park native, is a journalist who has worked in newsrooms in Oregon, Mississippi, California, New Jersey and Connecticut.

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