Today’s post is by Steve Grooms
My heart sank months ago when I read that the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota would be destroyed. Built in 1940, the Bell had unique charm, with an ivy-covered façade and Art Deco styling. The Bell housed a fascinating set of displays featuring fish, mammals, reptiles and birds of Minnesota in natural settings. The most spectacular of its displays were the large dioramas depicting sweeping scenes in which taxidermy animals interacted with each other and with their habitat. A particularly poignant display showed a family of passenger pigeons. Once a super-abundant bird whose flocks darkened the skies over Minnesota, the passenger has been extinct for over a century. The only passenger pigeons I’ll ever see were those in the Bell.
The story in the paper said the old building was aging so badly it had become an unsafe environment for employees. Decrepit plumbing frequently flooded the basement. Because the paintings that formed the backdrop for the dioramas were painted right on the walls, they could not be removed and installed in a new location. Reading that story was like hearing that a friend had an inoperable cancer.
My erstwife and I were University students when we met, so we often ducked into the Bell in between classes to talk. The Bell was cool on hot summer days. We enjoyed many movies that the University Film Society projected in the Bell’s theater. Every other building on that vast campus is a serious place where people debate academic issues. The Bell could hardly have been more different. It was beautiful, natural and visually exotic.
After administrators explained why it would be impossible to move the museum’s displays to a new location, public support for the Bell was so strong that the University was obliged to change its mind. Someone finally found enough money (about 50 million dollars) to protect its displays and move them to a new museum on the Saint Paul campus. That lovely campus is where wildlife management is taught, making it an appropriate home for the Bell’s dioramas.
An excellent story about this move, written by Briana Biersbach, was recently published on MinnPost, an online Minnesota news site: https://www.minnpost.com/education/2017/08/bell-wheels-how-minnesotas-only-natural-history-museum-got-minneapolis-st-paul
My daughter and I used to roam the Bell together so I could share my love for the natural world. The Bell was a sort of zoo where we paid nothing to enter and where animals were close-up and easy to see. Molly grew up knowing what the inside of a beaver lodge looked like because the Bell included a beaver lodge among its displays, a clever display that offered a view of the lodge both above and below water. Molly and I enjoyed studying the dioramas to see how cunningly their creators had blended the painted backdrops with the taxidermy foreground displays. When Molly got older we played more challenging games, such as “can you spot the chickadee?” or “what kind of owl is skulking next to that tree trunk?”
Molly especially enjoyed the Touch and See room, a place where kids were encouraged to explore wildlife in a hands-on way. I have a photo of her as a toddler kneeling to examine books in that room. Before her is a book about wolves. Several years later Molly and I would both write books on wolves that were published in the same month.
We were in the Bell one Saturday afternoon when my toddler daughter had an intellectual breakthrough. The Bell has a diorama showing a family of black bears. While two cubs frolic nearby, the mama bear captures a fish. A gorgeous, multi-hued brook trout lies in her paw.
Molly was thunderstruck when she spotted that fish. At the time her favorite bathtub toy was a blue plastic whale. Molly suddenly made the connection between that toy and the fish in the bear’s paw. The world of her bathtub and this world of animals were connected by that little fish. It was a sort of Helen Keller moment when Molly understood that objects could be categorized and understood. Pointing at the brook trout, Molly began howling, “Whale! Whale! Whale!”
One of my favorite college professors was passing by at that moment. I was tempted to explain why a little girl would call a tiny brook trout a “whale,” but he was grinning so much I let it go. He had raised several children of his own, and perhaps he had guessed our story.
I am not likely to see the new home for my beloved old museum. It opens in 2018. But I know better than to say it “never” will happen. If my family moves again we will land in Saint Paul, and I’m sure my grandson will enjoy the old dioramas.
Have you ever had a special moment in a museum