Established in 1872 by ornithologist Thomas Sadler Roberts and philanthropist James Ford Bell, the Bell Museum reopened its doors in July 2018, after a $64.2 million investment. This brand new building, newly located on the University of Minnesota’s St Paul’s campus, is a superb home for its world-class wildlife dioramas, a 120 seat digital planetarium and a generous temporary exhibition space. The museum is anticipated to triple its visitor figures this year to 100,000 guests; a testament to the public and state support that this museum enjoys and deserves.
The museum’s dramatic architecture greets you from the road with its expansive blocks of local white pine and steel deeply rooting the building, while the glass walls and a cantilevered second floor add light and airy touches. Approaching the entrance from the nearby parking lot, the architect’s attention to detail is evident as the all- glass entrance facade transforms into a huge mirror, reflecting the native gardens and confirming a building designed to reveal the natural history of Minnesota in clever and surprising ways.
As you enter the lobby, the drama of the building unfurls. A sweeping staircase to the first floor curves invitingly around the huge cylindrical wall of the planetarium bathed in light from the floor-to-ceiling glass behind. Tucked around this double height space are the Temporary Exhibition Hall, a well-stocked Touch & See Lab and a boutique Museum Shop with a cozy lounge overlooking the gardens.
Despite the busy day, there’s no wait at the Front Desk and the relaxed, knowledgeable and friendly staff issue a ‘ticket’ in the form of a little badge, and we’re soon entering the Temporary Exhibition space. Our Global Kitchen: Food Nature and Culture is a fun and challenging exhibition that spans a myriad of cultural delicacies. Our mixed-heritage group enjoyed the discussions around food, and marvelled at the cultivated varieties and health impacts of various diets from around the world. With lots of amusing food replicas and three taxidermy chickens this exhibition relies on its impressive facts and figures rather than gorgeous objects but is successful in entertaining and informing the visitor with literal food for thought!
Arriving back into the lobby, we move upstairs to the First floor, admiring the bulging planetarium wall and the views over the grounds as we ascend. The first floor is dedicated to the Minnesota Journeys Exhibition, which begins with an object-light, tech-heavy exploration of the origins of the universe featuring lots of interesting interactives and large-scale images of celestial bodies. While there is a lot to intrigue the average visitor, the gallery section seems directed at a teenage audience, with plenty of space for school groups and digital interpretation expertly demonstrating some fascinating principles of physics and chemistry relating to astronomy.
Welcoming you into the next part of the gallery is the Diversity Wall featuring a multitude of wonderfully unusual specimens, even to a seasoned museum visitor, with their mind-boggling adaptations creatively displayed. Pressed plants, strange crabs and weird and wonderful insects are displayed like jewels, all with their original museum labels emphasizing the research focus and history of the collection.
Turning the corner reveals a gorgeous diorama of the Cascade River before the most surprising moment of the trip; a huge and wonderfully life-like mammoth stands proudly alongside a locally collected mammoth tooth. Behind the mammoth a well-observed reconstruction of a giant beaver is another marvel, the wonderful quality of the mount complimented by a live interpreter offering a hands-on replica skull and modern beaver pelt. Next come the much anticipated and truly beautiful dioramas which really have to be seen to be believed. Sensitively displayed so the viewer can simply soak in the gorgeous and detailed scenes of incredibly skillful taxidermy mounts with their awe-inspiring backdrops, these sets are genuinely works of art. A modern touch includes unimposing touch-screens and written interpretation which provide deeper engagement opportunities for every age and interest. These really are the highlight of the trip, rewarding the visitor for taking the time to look and discover the many details and small creatures hiding in the foliage. The Elk, Crane and Lake Pepin dioramas were particularly impactful, the use of light and clever painting techniques coupled with the skill of the taxidermy create perfect mini-worlds that add intrinsic value to Minnesota’s natural heritage. A sign dedicated to famous wildlife artist Francis Lee Jacques’ work on the dioramas and an original scale model of the wolf diorama is a testament to the skill, work and history behind these incredible pieces.
We finish our trip with a walk around the Touch & See Lab which provides endless entertainment and talking points, a cow skull next to a Viking’s football helmet helps link these two object both able to protect the brain during impact. Live snakes and tarantulas fascinate the children and the binocular microscopes allow for some playful close-ups of your own hands and jewelry which made for a light-hearted end to the visit. The half-day spent at the Bell was a truly enjoyable experience, we saw the whole space without feeling rushed or overwhelmed, with plenty to take in and still deeper engagement to be had in a future visit.
The Museum has a well thought-out and responsive approach to its visitors; its active social media, live interpreters, touch-screens and the championing of the curators and university point to a thoroughly modern museum which pays respect to its history while looking forward to the future. Well worth a visit!
Accessibility options include disabled parking a short distance from the entrance, elevators to each floor and accessible toilets. Touchy-feely exhibits, metal reliefs of featured animals and pre-booked audio descriptions and ASL interpretation are all available.
How to get there:Parking
Paid surface lot parking is available with an entrance off of Larpenteur Ave. The daily rate is $5.Bike/Walk
Bike racks are available on two sides of the museum site: north, near the main entrance/Larpenteur Ave and south, near the recreation fields/Cleveland Ave. See the St. Paul campus biking map for more details once you are on campus.
Walking is another great way to get around campus. The University’s St. Paul campus offers an aesthetically-pleasing atmosphere with foliage and green plazas. Note: Estimate a 15-20 minute walk from the central St. Paul campus area to the museum.Transit
Metro Transit’s Route 61 runs between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, and stops near the museum on Larpenteur Ave & Coffman St. Bus route frequency varies between 30 minutes – one hour; no service on Sundays. Visit Metro Transit to plan your trip.
The University provides FREE shuttle service around campus. The St. Paul Circulator (M-F, 7am – 6pm, every 15 minutes) also stops at the museum drop off area near the main entrance. It is about a 10 minute ride from most of the stops near the center of the St. Paul campus.Train: Take the train to the SECC and walk 10 minutes Subway: Get off at Kelvinhall and walk for 15 minutes