backroads bell museum

While the Bell Museum unveiled a sparkling new facility in 2018 on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, the state’s museum of natural history has a much longer story.

The museum was established by the Minnesota state legislature 1872 to collect, preserve, display and interpret Minnesota’s diverse animal and plant life for scholarly research, teaching and for public enjoyment. It was first located in a single room in a building on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus. Fundraising efforts and a generous donation from General Mills founder James Ford Bell created the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History which opened in 1940 in Minneapolis. The building was expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, but by the 1980s the building was suffering from leaks, cracks, mold and water damage, which threatened the collections and the dioramas. After a decades-long planning and legislative process, the university broke ground on the current Bell Museum – located at 2088 Larpenteur Ave. W in Falcon Heights, Minn. – on April 22, 2016.

Bright and airy, the Bell Museum features a variety of collections with more than 4 million specimens. Exhibits take visitors from the earliest forms of life on earth to the challenges faced due to urbanization and climate change. Collections feature all manner of Minnesota life – from fungi and plants to reptiles, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish and mammals.

In the museum’s Touch and See Lab, visitors can handle many artifacts as well as see live snakes, spiders, scorpions and cockroaches. The Lab was developed in 1968 to allow visitors – especially children – to get their hands on specimens which are traditionally behind glass in museums.

Throughout the museum there are videos and interactive activities for all ages. Activities are designed low to the ground to enable even the youngest visitor to take part.

A striking feature carried over from the old Minneapolis museum is the dioramas. Constructed between 1920 and the late 1940s, the Bell Museum’s dioramas illustrate what Minnesota was like before the ax and plow. Displayed behind large panes of glass, the dioramas create an amazing sensation of depth and detail. Some of the wildlife featured are moose, elk, swans and beaver.

“Under the Fig Leaf” is a living rainforest and active research project. Many of the plants were grown from seeds collected in tropical forests around the world like Papua New Guinea. Visitors can get a ground floor and canopy view of the mini rainforest and learn about related University of Minnesota research.

The Minnesota Planetarium Society operated the Minnesota Planetarium from 1960 until it was closed in 2002 when the Minneapolis Central Library was torn down. In 2011, the Planetarium Society merged with the Bell Museum of Natural History with plans to create a digital planetarium. The 120-seat digital planetarium requires an admission separate from the museum admission.

The museum campus also features outdoor learning landscapes, classrooms and temporary exhibit galleries. The museum also recently launched the Minnesota Biodiversity Atlas, an online, searchable interface containing over 400,000 scientific records and as many as 175,000 high-resolution images.

The Bell Museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information can be found at the museum’s website, www.bellmuseum.umn.edu.