It was a quest that continued through three governors, three University of Minnesota presidents and three deans of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.
So when ground finally was broken for a new Bell Museum of Natural Science and Planetarium recently, it was a time for celebration, but also reflection on a long journey and repeated setbacks along the way.
The state Legislature, for example, twice passed bills funding a new museum, only to have them vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Then the project was included in the 2013 legislative bonding bill that failed to pass. After that, the university’s central administration stopped lobbying for the facility.
But advocates didn’t give up and a last-gasp effort finally succeeded in 2014.
That, university Regent Tom Devine told an Earth Day gathering at the St. Paul campus student center, took “one heck of a collaboration and the leader of the band was Alice Hausman,” the St. Paul DFLer who is the state representative for the area.
Afterward, Lee Pfannmuller, chair of the Bell advisory board, expanded on Hausman’s role, calling her “the key.”
“It was her persistence over the years, particularly during the 2014 legislative session, that kept the need for funding front and center,” Pfannmuller said. “Had she not done that we wouldn’t be where we are. Having a champion at the Legislature was absolutely essential and Alice is the best one could ask for!”
However, Phannmuller hastened to add that the project still would have been dead in the water if university President Eric Kaler hadn’t been willing to work out a deal: The university would issue bonds for the project if the Legislature paid for the debt service with general fund dollars.
The new $80 million Bell, projected to become the gateway to the university’s St. Paul campus, is slated to open in late summer 2018 on a five-acre site on the southwest corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues in Falcon Heights.
It will have more exhibit space than the current museum on the Minneapolis campus, as well as a 120-seat theater and planetarium.
Through the use of interactive technology, a visit to the new Bell will be more of a hands-on experience than in the past, according to George Weiblen, the museum’s interim scientific director and professor of plant biology.
“The exhibits will interpret nature and the universe through the lens of Minnesota,” Weiblen said. “The themes—why earth is special, tree of life, web of life and imagining our future—are broadened beyond Minnesota natural history to include astronomy.”
Many of the taxidermy dioramas so familiar to generations of Bell visitors will be moved to the new facility and incorporated into the new exhibits.
Given what seems like a stream of bad news regarding the state of the environment, wildlife and the planet in general, is the new museum going to be an optimistic place?
“We aim for a hopeful experience where visitors can learn from nature how we can live in equilibrium with the earth to ensure opportunity for generations to come,” Weiblen said.
In her remarks to the student center audience, Hausman referred to the wisdom of legislative leaders who in 1872 directed that a natural science collection be established at the University of Minnesota.
Afterward, she was asked if the new Bell was evidence that Minnesota had stayed true to the vision of those pioneers.
“There are dedicated [Bell] staff who have never lost the vision,” she said. “Some at both the state and university level had perhaps a more limited understanding of and commitment to the vision and value.”
Roger Bergerson writes about history and community news regularly in the Park Bugle.
Longtime curator reflects on the old Bell Museum and the new
By Gordon Murdock
In 2018, I’ll be able to walk to the new Bell Museum at the corner of Cleveland and Larpenteur from my home in St. Anthony Park. Whether I’m volunteering, dropping by for a program or to see an exhibition, that new easy access will be delightful.
I’ve been retired from the Bell Museum for four years after 31 years working there, but I still go in and try to be useful. Now the 10-minute walk that has taken me only to the campus bus, will take me to the Bell’s front door.
Access will be easier, too, for the Bell’s friends and neighbors who live near the new site. Everyone at the Bell is looking forward to close relationships with new neighbors and neighborhoods. It will be great, too, being much closer to the Bell’s academic curators, many other faculty staff and students of the St. Paul Campus. It will make for much easier sharing of ideas and broader participation of the St. Paul academic community in the public life of the Bell.
The museum’s current art deco building is loved for its beauty and charm, but there is much that Bell staff won’t miss. Poor access to parking (almost none on days of home football games), single-glazed windows that are hard to open or close, limited air conditioning, too few electrical outlets and ceilings too low for many travelling exhibits the Bell might host, to name just a few. The time has certainly come for a new building.
Most of the large, beautiful, educationally powerful dioramas will travel to the new site. There will be new elements of architectural beauty, sustainable design, much better heating and cooling, and enough electrical outlets.
And those who live too far away to walk will be able to park right on the site. Even on game days.
Gordon Murdock was a curator at the Bell Museum of Natural History for 31 years and is an active member of the St. Anthony Park community.