Diorama daze: Bell Museum prepares to open doors of $79M new digs

Sculptures of a pack of wolves attacking a moose, called
Sculptures of a number of wolves attacking a moose, called "The Encounter," are placed outside of the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum in Falcon Heights on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Once known for its musty hallways and dimly lit dioramas on the University of Minnesota's East Bank campus, the Bell Museum has a sparkling new home that will bring visitors as close to the natural world as they can without getting their socks wet.

Carpenters drill mounting holes as they put the finishing touches on more than 100 displays that have been relocated to the Bell Museum's new home on the edge of the U's St. Paul campus, opening in a few weeks. The new facility is wrapped in so much glass you feel like you're stepping inside a museum display case.

The University of Minnesota's new Bell Museum.
The University of Minnesota's new Bell Museum sits on Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights.
Evan Frost | MPR News

That's intentional, said Andria Waclawski as she led a preview tour past the second level's floor-to-ceiling exterior glass wall.

"Eventually when we're ready to have this up and lit, this scene will be visible from the outside day and night as a traditional diorama that the Bell Museum is known for," Waclawski said.

There are 10 room-sized dioramas and 35 smaller displays, many including scenes rendered by renowned wildlife painter Francis Lee Jaques, who lived in Minnesota. He's also known for his work at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Jaques' pre-World War II scenes of a moose, her calf, a pack of wolves and a bellowing elk drew visitors and school groups to the museum for decades. They were carefully cut out of the old Bell Museum, trucked to the new building and meticulously restored and reinstalled.

"A lot of people think that we changed the color schemes, but that's just how dusty they were," Waclawski said.

A crested gecko hangs on the side of its enclosure
A crested gecko hangs on the side of its enclosure in the "Touch and See" room.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Another visitor favorite, the Touch and See room, contains bones, animal skins, turtles and shells. Coordinator Jennifer Menken said it got an upgrade, too, with a room for the 4,000-piece public education collection.

"Which in the old building was in lots of closets and on shelves and in offices and now is all in one place so that people can come in and use it, from artists to school groups to scout groups, we can do anything we want with them," Menken said.

The new museum has big classroom spaces, an astronomy gallery and a 120-seat digital planetarium with a 50-foot dome ceiling. At 92,000 square feet, it's about a third bigger than the old museum, with more display space. A walk through the galleries offers everything from a distant view of our galaxy to a bronze cast of a butterfly. It's a tactile detail from a diorama mounted on the wall for those who are sight-impaired.

A synthetic wooly mammoth and real musk ox.
A synthetic wooly mammoth and real musk ox occupy a glacier exhibit inside the Bell Museum.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The museum is set in a 5-acre park, across Larpenteur Avenue from the Gibbs Farm Museum in Falcon Heights.

From a baseball-diamond sized rooftop observation deck, Bell Museum executive director Denise Young pointed out a rainwater collection system that will provide irrigation.

"We're also looking at native plants, a pollinator garden, our beehives, rain gardens, and different features that people could actually replicate at their own homes and businesses," Young said.

The museum will hold an after-hours grand opening event on July 13, the day before opening to the public. Regular gallery admission will be $12 for adults and $9 for kids. Planetarium shows have an additional charge.