U of M’s Bell Museum plans move to Falcon Heights

The future site of the Bell Museum at Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues in Falcon Heights is empty, save for some beehives used by the University of Minnesota. (Linda E. Andersen/Review)
The future site of the Bell Museum at Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues in Falcon Heights is empty, save for some beehives used by the University of Minnesota. (Linda E. Andersen/Review)
The current site of the Bell Museum is located on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus. (submitted)
The current site of the Bell Museum is located on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus. (submitted)
The Gibbs Museum sits directly across Larpenteur Avenue from the future site of the new Bell Museum. (Linda E. Andersen/Review)
The Gibbs Museum sits directly across Larpenteur Avenue from the future site of the new Bell Museum. (Linda E. Andersen/Review)

A 140-year-old museum on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus is moving out, finding a new home in Falcon Heights on the college’s St. Paul campus.

The Bell Museum of Natural History, currently located at Church Street and University Avenue in Minneapolis, will be packing up a few of its best dioramas and moving into a brand-new building—which has yet to be constructed—at the corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues.

The new museum will be bigger and better with a 62,500-square-foot site, new dioramas and exhibits, and a full-sized planetarium.

But the project hasn’t been without its speed bumps—the new museum struggled to find funding for years until finally being included in the state’s bonding bill in last year’s legislative session.

Dr. Susan Weller, the museum’s director and a professor of entomology at the U, gave a presentation about the project to a full house at Falcon Heights City Hall on Monday, April 27.

“We will be an open invitation ... to discover your inner scientist,” Weller told the crowd.

Struggle for funding

The museum’s funding only came together recently after merging with another project—a new planetarium the Minnesota Planetarium Society had hoped to build atop the Minneapolis Public Library.

The planetarium society had received bonding for its project during a previous legislative session, but failed to raise enough matching funds and lost the money.

So after Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed bonding for the Bell Museum in 2008 and 2009, the two merged in 2011 to become “Minnesota’s Natural History Museum and Planetarium,” and with some help from state Rep. Alice Hausman of St. Paul—whom Weller fondly called “the little engine that could”—and other “citizen champions,” the project finally received $51.5 million in bonding issued by the U with debt service paid by the state.

The Bell Museum is in charge of raising an additional $6 million for the project, bringing the final price tag to $57.5 million.

Weller said the museum plans to bring 11 large dioramas—its “jewels”—and several more small and medium-sized dioramas to exhibits in the new facility. Weller says the museum hopes to find new homes for the remaining dioramas, though where they’ll go has yet to be determined.

Plans under construction

Much of the project is still in flux. The University’s Board of Regents will not approve a final design plan until December, and construction would likely not begin until summer 2016. A grand opening is anticipated for summer 2018.

As of now, Weller said the project is being designed in a manner that’s “ecologically friendly.” A resident at the April 27 presentation pointed to the new Vikings stadium’s potentially bird-unsafe glass walls as a design feature they would like to avoid.

“Collecting birds with my museum is not something I’m interested in doing,” Weller responded, adding Bell Museum representatives had reached out to area businesses to explore ways to make the building more “wildlife friendly.”

But what’s definitely planned, in addition to the planetarium and exhibits, are teaching classrooms, visitor amenities such as a museum store, and a flat-surface parking lot. Weller said there are also hopes of creating a bus corral nearby so school buses don’t need to take up parking spaces.

Expanded planetarium capacity

The current Bell Museum location is housed in a facility that was built in 1940, Weller said. Some of the challenges with the building include a lack of electrical power outlets and the inability for visitors to get wireless phone and data reception in the facility, which limits some of the programming the museum can offer.

Additionally, the planetarium at the museum can only hold about 15 people, according to the museum’s planetarium education and outreach coordinator Sally Brummel.

“The planetarium in the new Bell Museum will seat 120 people,” Brummel explained, adding that the increased capacity will allow the museum to host more school groups and offer more planetarium programming for the public.

The museum also owns a traveling planetarium called the ExploraDome, which can be brought to schools and community events across the state—but only if the inflatable dome fits inside the school, which can be a limiting factor, Brummel said.

Brummel, a Roseville resident, added that the museum is in the process of garnering feedback from local teachers about what they’d like to see taught at the museum.

“We are right now in the middle of our workshop to really determine what content areas are going to be featured at the dome. We think it’s very important for the people who are going to be coming to the museum to have a voice in what we provide.

“Especially all the schools right there in Falcon Heights and Roseville area, we want them to be coming in on a regular basis.”

Opportunities for collaboration

The Ramsey County Historical Society operates the Gibbs Museum of Pioneer and Dakotah Life directly across Larpenteur Avenue from where the new museum will be situated. But rather than competing for visitors, the two entities report they’ve already been in contact about potential program collaboration.

“We are all very excited about the opportunity,” said Ramsey County Historical Society president Chad Roberts. “It clusters two really education-focused cultural institutions right next to one another, and the opportunity there for educators is tremendous.”

“All of us at Ramsey County Historical Society and Gibbs Museum are excited about the Bell Museum moving across the street from us,” echoed Gibbs Museum site manager Terry Swanson.

Roberts added having the two museums so close together could be “cost-effective” for schools looking to send classes on field trips to both sites.

A resident at the April 27 presentation questioned whether a walkway between the two museums—either over or under Larpenteur Avenue—was being considered. Weller stated it was too soon to know, and Roberts said he would “love” to see such a connection discussed as plans evolve.

Community excitement

Falcon Heights mayor Peter Lindstrom said the city council is pleased the new museum is finally becoming a reality.

“The entire council has been advocating for the Bell Museum for several years now,” he said. “Each year we were disappointed when either it was not included in the bonding bill or was vetoed, and when it finally crossed the threshold and received the state funding, we were absolutely thrilled.”

Brummel said her neighbors are also looking forward to having the museum nearby.

“My neighbors are aware of what we do at the Bell Museum, and a lot of them have had a history of going over to Minneapolis,” Brummel said. “So they are really excited that they will have it a lot closer by now.”

On a personal note, Lindstrom said his family, which includes two young sons, would likely be using the museum “heavily.”

“[We] look forward to opening those doors and seeing this beautiful facility, which will be a part of our community for generations to come. I think it’s going to be a great structure we can point to with pride.”

For more information about the Bell Museum of Natural History, visit www.bellmuseum.org.

Johanna Holub can be reached at jholub@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. Follow her on Twitter @jholubnews.

 

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