The old and the new teach story of life at Bell Museum

Mike Munzenrider photo • A woolly mammoth and other ice age creatures are some of the newest additions to the new $79 million Bell Museum, located at the corner of Cleveland and Larpenteur avenues on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus in Falcon Heights. Its grand opening is July 13-15.

Mike Munzenrider photo • The Bell Museum in Falcon Heights replaces the institution’s former location on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis, which closed in 2016.

Mike Munzenrider photo • The Bell’s famous dioramas are back, moved, cleaned and behind UV-protecting, non-reflective glass, including Wolves at Shovel Point.

Mike Munzenrider photo • The mammoth, which was created by Eagan-based Blue Rhino Studio, stands 16 feet above the museum floor in front of a two-story tall glacier.

Mike Munzenrider photo • The Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium, housed on the Bell museum’s first floor, when it opens to the public later this month, will become the first public planetarium in the state since 2002. During a June 26 media preview it showed constellations from Minnesota’s summer sky.

The woolly mammoth towering over the corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues will soon be a familiar sight as the new Bell Museum opens in Falcon Heights this month.

The grand opening of the 146-year-old institution’s new facility is July 13-15 and has been more than two years and some $79 million in the making.

The extinct beast in question is one of the museum’s newest and biggest additions, standing in front of a two-story-tall glacier along with a couple of ice age buddies, a muskox and giant beaver. The trio will be lit to be seen through a window from the outside.

Denise Young, the museum’s executive director, said at a June 26 media preview of the new space that it’s intended as both a portal into the natural world and the research that’s done at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

The museum building itself is eye-catching, rising out of agricultural fields and other green space, cutting into the sky with wood siding and glass.

With 60 percent more public space than the museum’s previous Minneapolis location, which closed at the end of 2016, the new facility includes the former site’s famed dioramas, as well as a 120-seat digital planetarium.

“It’s at least, for the time being, the best planetarium on earth,” said Andria Waclawski, senior communications manager of the museum. 


Life cycles

The museum’s second floor, where workers continued to put finishing touches on exhibits, houses its permanent collection and is based around four themes: “Life in the Universe,” “Tree of Life,” “Web of Life” and “Imagining the Future.”

Sarah Komperud, planetarium programs coordinator, explained the Life in the Universe area details what makes life on earth work, and what it might take for life to be found on a planet or moon elsewhere in the universe.

In the Tree of Life area, which details the origins of life on the planet, an overhead projection shines a “primordial soup bowl” on a tabletop.

The museum’s collection of 1 million specimens is evident throughout the second floor but perhaps most prominent when it comes to the Web of Life, which includes the dioramas, created and installed at the museum’s former Minneapolis location in the 1940s.

The new mammoth, which stands 16 feet above the floor and came to the museum in three pieces, “definitely would not have fit” at the previous museum, said Waclawski. 

It was made by Eagan-based Blue Rhino Studio, she added, and features hair sourced from the same company that made the fur for the Chewbacca costume as seen in the newest “Star Wars” films.

“We have a very hip mammoth at the Bell Museum,” Waclawski said.


Real places

While the mammoth and one of its fellow travelers, the giant beaver, are man-made replicas, the accompanying muskox is a taxidermy specimen, as are the centerpieces of the museum’s well-known Francis Lee Jaques dioramas.

George Weiblen, science director and curator of plants at the museum, said the move from Minneapolis allowed the dioramas to be cleaned and reworked for the first time in 75 years.

It was an engineering feat just to get the displays into the building, said Waclawski, with some folks thinking they’d be impossible to move. She said a single wall of the moose diorama weighs in at multiple tons — each are painted canvas on plaster backed by concrete poured over a metal frame — and they were moved by crane into place.

The museum boasts 10 large dioramas, featuring scenes such as Wolves at Shovel Point and Lake Pepin’s Sand Point. Each scene depicts an actual place in Minnesota that museum-goers could visit, and the exhibits are complete with where each place is on the map, along with aerial photos and touch screens that play video, as well as audio for people who might not be able to see each scene.

The dioramas are strategically lit by an LED lighting system and are behind reflectionless and UV-filtering glass, Waclawski said, which should keep them looking good for another 100 years. The fact that they were cleaned has made a difference too.

“A lot of people think we changed the color schemes but that’s how dusty they were,” she said.


Touch and see

The museum’s first floor is home to the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium, and will also be the place where temporary exhibits and those on loan from elsewhere will be shown.

The ground floor also has classrooms for the museum’s K-8 summer camps, which began in June, as well as the Touch & See Lab, which features live insects, reptiles and other rescued animals, as well as bones — there’s an elephant skull — and other interactive features.

The opening weekend events will include an after-hours party on Friday, July 13, which will feature music, DIY art and sketching, planetarium previews, telescope observing, food trucks and more. Tickets for that event are $40.

Festivities on Saturday, July 14, and Sunday, July 15, will include extended hours, science demos, make-your-own mini-dioramas, water-rocket launching and Dark Matter, the Bell Museum’s ice cream, made by the university’s Food Science and Nutrition department. Admission prices apply for the July 14 and 15 events; tickets for all three days can be purchased at

There will also be free events on July 14 outside the museum from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“We’re feeling ready to open in three weeks,” said Young. 


– Mike Munzenrider can be reached at or 651-748-7813

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