The Bell Comes Alive
Nature gives up its secrets at the U’s epic new Bell Museum and Planetarium.
The Bell Museum has molted. It has left its cramped, dilapidated quarters on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus for a sustainable design of local granite, steel, white pine, and glass set among a pond and grassy fields on the St. Paul campus. Established in 1872 as the state’s natural history museum, the Bell has evolved from a collection of Minnesota still life's into a dynamic, interactive journey that explores our place in space and time. When doors open in July, you can try to seduce a sandhill crane with a mating dance. You can walk around a freshly constructed, life-size woolly mammoth from prehistoric Minnesota. And the second floor rotunda invites you, among suspended planets, to ponder questions inked on the walls such as “Are we really made of stars?”
Thirty percent bigger than its former home, the $79 million building, wrapped around a 120-seat planetarium, features an expanded Touch & See Lab, is topped by an observation deck and green roof, includes a new gallery to highlight faculty research, and has space to display temporary exhibits and items from the Bell’s expansive collection of 1.2 million specimens. The world-famous dioramas remain the backbone of the museum. Each one tells a story on its surface—and more underneath.
Francis Lee Jaques, a renowned wildlife artist who spent part of his youth on a farm in Aitkin, Minnesota, and worked as an artist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, returned to Minnesota in the 1940s to paint the diorama backgrounds. He traveled to the settings for each scene, where he made sketches and painted color keys (color film was not reliable at the time), then returned to create amazingly realistic scenes with oil on canvass adhered to the curved walls.
Florence Jaques added secret details to her husband’s work like the small critter hidden on the ground in the tall grass among the sandhill cranes that one can uncover by zooming in on a touchscreen. Once the paintings were in place, taxidermists Walter Breckenridge and John Jarosz constructed the scenes with such care that it is difficult to distinguish where the floor ends and the wall begins.
The wolf diorama tells how the museum got its former home on Church Street and University Avenue. James Ford Bell, General Mills founder and faithful conservationist, wanted to promote the nobility of wolves at a time when they were despised as vermin, but the museum’s location at the time (just east of Coffman Union) didn’t have the space to accommodate a wolf diorama. So, Bell donated half the funds for a new building. The diorama, completed in 1942, depicts three wolves hunting on Shovel Point in Tettegouche State Park. Jaques painted a deer among the birch trees and Breckenridge and Jarosz made plaster casts of the rocks at the site to recreate them. Bounty hunters contributed the wolves.
The hunting scene casts the wolves as seen in the wild, in their natural setting, rather than in artificial poses, a portrayal that set the tone for future dioramas. It made the once undesirable wolves desirable. “These wolves were not understood at the time, but now they’re being used to teach people about the value of wolves in North America,” says Andria Waclawski, Bell Museum communications manager.
The moose diorama tells the story of Breckenridge’s ingenuity. After blocking out the scene, Breck—as he was known—set out in 1944 with several other museum staff members and Pat Patterson of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on a hunt south of the Canadian border. Patterson shot a moose that Breck thought would be too small but since they had a hunting permit for only one, he had to make do. They nailed together two logs as a stretcher to drag the moose with a tractor back to camp, where Breck photographed the carcass from various angles and made plaster molds of the eye and nose before he skinned it. He removed the legs and head as well as the flesh.
Back at the museum, Breck, who had practiced taxidermy since he was a teenager, reconstructed the musculature of the moose with papier-maché over a makeshift skeleton using the measurements he had taken in the field. “The skin, which had been tanned without disturbing the hair, was preserved and cemented on the statue of the animal,” he wrote in his notes. He also fitted it with glass eyes made from the molds he had taken.
But there was a problem. At six feet, the animal Breck had initially thought was too small was actually too tall for the diorama. Since the setting was to be the muddy shore of Gunflint Lake, he cut off three of the moose’s feet and sank the legs “deep into the mud with one leg lifted to show the character of the foot with its split hoof.”
Rejuvenating the dioramas
Moving to the new Bell required equal ingenuity. To extract the dioramas which measure about 24 feet wide by 10 feet deep and weigh around 5,000 pounds—from their old home, workers had to cut the wall paintings into pieces, punch an opening into the side of the building, cart them out on steel dollies, transport them by flatbed across the river, lower them by crane through a wall left open in the new construction, carefully reassemble the paintings, then meticulously paint over the cutlines so they are not discernible. The flora and fauna were moved with similar care.
Many of the models had not been cleaned since their installation in the 4’0s and ’50s. Sediment from a nearby coal-burning power plant, smoke from visitors’ cigarettes, and natural dust had seeped into the unsealed display cases. Everything was gently dusted before the move, and the wall paintings were swaddled in shrink-wrap that lightly adhered to the paintings and peeled off a layer of dust when removed.
Museum workers spent months painstakingly cleaning and reconstructing the scenes in their new home. Each of the hundreds of leaves in the wood duck diorama, for instance, was gently washed by hand and glued in place on the ground. The red plumage, which had faded on a rosebreasted grosbeak, was touched up with a special dry pigment. An elk’s tongue was repainted pink.
Drawing from clues in the scenes and notes from the artists’ journals, restoration experts made adjustments as they reconstructed the dioramas to enhance their verisimilitude. They scattered molted feathers among the snow geese, lowered plants behind the elk, rippled the water dammed by beavers, and moistened the mud tromped by the moose. Now set behind nearly invisible double-paned glass with LED lighting in climate controlled cases, the scenes provide even more realistic snapshots from around the state.
Technology drives insights
In the new museum, old specimens remain fresh in what they have to teach us, thanks to DNA analysis. “These older specimens allow us to travel back in time,” says George Weiblen, the Bell’s science director and a U professor of plant and microbial biology. “They are a point of reference that show how we’ve changed and where we’re headed.”
An interactive gallery in the permanent exhibit space showcases the discoveries being made by U researchers around the planet and from within the existing collection. Plaques and sketches explain a new bacteria a University team found living far underground in the Soudan mine on the Iron Range and several species of fig tree Weiblen gathered in New Guinea.
Weiblen named one of the new figs Ficus rubrivestimenta, or “fig of the red cloth,” because indigenous people use its dye to decorate grass skirts. No scientist had previously identified the tree as a unique species. Insects led him to another new strain of fig tree when he observed them showing preference for one over another while pollinating. “They could tell them apart but botanists couldn’t,” he says.
Once he examined the figs’ DNA, he found microscopic differences among specimens that had already been collected but not yet identified as unique. “We often find new species among old specimens,” Weiblen says. “We are able to use DNA preserved in specimens to see how they are related and divergent.”
That’s how Sharon Jansa, U associate professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior, discovered a new species of mammal. She explains on a kiosk video how genetic sequencing on a mouse that once lived in the trees of the Philippines allowed her to identify its lineage. Her specialty is mapping evolutionary history, the way genes are transferred among populations. “A certain excitement happens in front of the computer screen,” Jansa says. “The Bell is critical to understanding biodiversity as part of the bigger network of natural history museums and their collections throughout the world.”
The specimens in the dioramas and elsewhere in the Bell’s vast collection, gathered before most visitors were born, continue to be useful in new ways. For instance, the wood duck diorama, completed in 1952, depicts flowers and plants beginning to bloom in late April. Now, those same flowers and plants bloom a month earlier, providing valuable documentation of climate change.
Ultimately, the museum challenges us in the way we see and live in our world today at a time when the rapid pace of daily life can distract us from looking closely at our natural surroundings. “Hopefully this inspires you the next time you’re outside—camping or even in your backyard—to appreciate how much life is around you,” Waclawski says. “We’re empowering people to see more.
John Rosengren is an award-winning journalist based in Minneapolis and an adjunct instructor at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication.