When the Bell Museum in St. Paul unveiled its $79 million dollar makeover in summer 2018, it showed just how serious the University of Minnesota is about preserving its past and embracing its future.⠀
The Bell’s story began in 1872 — 14 years after Minnesota became a state — and it’s named after General Mills founder James Ford Bell, a conservationist who ponied up $150,000 for its first proper building. The crown jewels of the 92,000-square-foot reboot are its beloved dioramas, many of which feature the work of Minnesota native Francis Lee Jacques.⠀
FLJ made his mark painting and building realistic nature scenes at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, but eventually headed home in the 1930s to construct 19 backgrounds for the Bell Museum and illustrate his wife Florence Page Jacques’s influential books about the Boundary Waters: Canoe Country and Snowshoe Country. The couple stayed put, too, spending their golden years in the St. Paul suburb of North Oaks.⠀
The Jacques’ lifelong drive to document the great outdoors can be seen throughout the Bell’s new displays, which never allow interactive screens to trump the timeless dioramas. Painstakingly restored from their original designs and layouts, they capture the natural habitats of everything from swans and snow geese to moose and wooly mammoths. Some can still be experienced within the state’s pristine trails and parks (Shovel Point, Lake Itasca, Gunflint Lake); others are long gone due to climate change and major real estate developments like the Mall of America and MSP Airport.⠀
The Bell also brings in unique special exhibitions. To wit: Luke Jerram’s megalithic “Museum of the Moon” balloon installation. The 23-foot helium sphere made one helluva Instagram op but it was also educational, inspiring guided tours on moon geography and geology and special “Many Moons” discussions between indigenous linguist Kaagegaabaw and Dakota language specialist Čhantémaza. Though the moon has come and gone, you can still catch the Bell’s latest original Planetarium feature, One Giant Leap. Using 360-degree archival footage, viewers rocket to the surface of the moon and bounce around with Neil Armstrong. It’s all part of the museum’s “Year of Apollo: The Moon & Beyond” programming, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing by hosting a year of special events and guest speakers.
It’s hard to leave the Bell without a renewed appreciation for amazing nature and the wilds of the universe—although the kids can keep the creepy crawlies in its Touch & See Lab to themselves. We encountered enough cockroaches in Brooklyn to last a lifetime.
2088 Larpenteur Ave W., St. Paul, MN; 612-626-9660.