Museum Memories

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

90 thoughts on “Museum Memories”

  1. We visited the Chicaga Art Institute when son was 18 months old. Near the steps of the museum, a street musician was playing jazz on an alto saxophone, and son was so excited he danced to the music.

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Rise and Shine Baboons!

    As a child of about age 10 or 11 years, I went to the Chicago Fiedld Museum. My Aunt and Uncle (who callled yesterday for my birthday–they are now 85 and 81 years old)–took us. Chicago was unimaginable to me, much less a museum like the Field Museum. During that short trip I saw so much that the memories have kept me busy for years.

    I remember the taxidermist animals and the dioramas, as well as the marble floors and benches. And the vast size. I did not know there were buildings that large.

    My little town existed on a tiny scale compared to anything in Chicago. My primary souveneir of that trip was a very sore neck procured by constant looking up.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. i think all my museum trips provide me with magic
    i remember the kurt vonnegut story with the character roller skating through the museum making believe his hands were a camera and clicking the picture as a permanent memory into his brain
    i recently happened into the minneapolis institute of arts because i was there picking up some tickets and i just couldn’t walk past the art without paying a visit
    i didn’t have time but couldn’t say no
    i ended up doing a pretty extensive tour for 90 minutes and found st the end i had taken about 300 pictures (love me iphone) i can and have scanned the pictures and enjoy remembering brush strokes and how rembrandt did light…

    i had a sales manager years ago who was an odd duck and liked to stop at hotels and go to mueseums on route to our sales destinations

    he enjoyed the presentation more than the content science history art didn’t matter just give him a museum and he was happy

    i did the museums with my kids when they were small in minneapolis and chicago and when we would travel

    i went to the chicago art institute recently and was disappointed that they made it expensive enough that i passed
    i think it was going to be 50 for my daughter and i to go in for 2 hours

    i remember going there years ago and having the gal at the desk tell me it was 30 dollars and the museum closed in an hour
    i said i’d pass and the guy next to me said ” it’s a suggested donation you can go in for free” so i did… i tried that with my daughter and it didn’t work
    minneapolis institute of arts just changed their policy so it’s free for everyone every day donations appreciated
    they said they didn’t want admission to stand in the way of people interacting with art
    hooray minneapolis
    boo chicago

    Liked by 5 people

  4. I am having a crazy morning here.

    OT: I just read a fascinating and totally unexpected article on the NBC News home page about a startling revolution in the justice system. Those of you with a little time might want to check it out.

    Also OT: our little family here is dealing with an economic crisis.

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  5. Thanks for this post, Steve – I didn’t realize about the Bell Museum. Apparently there is still time to see it again before they bulldoze it?

    Our summers in Colorado got me to Denver’s Natural History Museum, and for the first time I realized my dad loved history. I was 10 or 11, and I remember so much – the “ancient man” windows, the dinosaur room, the geodes, the wildlife dioramas, esp. the birds… I went again when I was visiting there as a young adult, and it was still great, but that first visit is, I think, the most awe-inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve talked here on the Trail about when I was a janitor as my student employment and worked after hours in the Bell Museum. That wonderful place was truly creepy when most of the lights were off and the halls were empty. The backroom had taxidermy in progress and floor-to-ceiling cabinets with drawers full of dead birds.

    The Francis Lee Jaques dioramas are a public treasure. It seems unthinkable that they ever considered letting them be destroyed.

    The last time I was in the Bell Museum was for a display of pages from the Audubon “elephant” portfolio. Included in the show were also paintings by Jaques and Roger Tory Peterson.

    The Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont has open air exhibits as well as galleries. The open air part includes historic buildings that have been moved on site, a round barn featuring display of circus wagons and memorabilia, a Lake Champlain steamboat and ample gardens and grounds.
    The galleries emphasize folk art, with rooms full of ship’s figureheads, weathervanes, cigar store indians, quilts and hooked rugs. There is also a very respectable collection of mostly American art. The first time we visited there, Robin had made prior arrangements with the staff for us to peruse their collection of historic clothing. For a couple of hours, we were able to handle and examine garments going back to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

    The Huntington Library in Pasadena is also not to be missed. There on display are a Gutenberg Bible, an early Chaucer, letters by Washington, Lincoln and Christopher Columbus and more. The art gallery favors European artists like Gainsborough. There are also extensive gardens.

    The John Kohler Art Museum in Sheboygan is definitely worth the trip. Its emphasis is on “outsider art”, much of it originating in Wisconsin.

    One of the most interesting and unusual museums we’ve visited is the Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. It’s a family-run museum, or at least that’s how it started. I don’t know its current status. The entire museum is dedicated to displaying the contents of a Missouri River steamboat that sank in 1856 and was buried in the mud. As the river changed course, the boat ended up buried under a cornfield. When the boat and its tons of cargo were excavated, the muddy soil had preserved much of the goods. What makes the museum unusual is that everything is precisely contemporary—it’s a snapshot of what was available on the frontier in 1856—and some of the goods, like French cognac and London gin are surprising.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Another great museum is in Memphis–the Mississippi River Museum covering the river fro Cairo, Ill to the Gulf. It has geography, geology, history, experience.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When in Memphis be sure to appreciate Stax Records Museum. It is for anyone. Last year my Dad and I went west for a few weeks and coming back went to this Museum. Mostly it was for me but the old guy surprised me will his thoughtfulness on the racial aspects of the contents. He had served in the Air Force with the most bigoted people. His commanding general was LeMay. I was born on a base in Selma, Alabama. There is not a bigoted bone in his body and he loved the civil rights aspects of the presentations. He amazed me.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. I should probably put in a plug for the Minnesota Marine Art Museum down on the Mississippi here in Winona. It’s been expanded a couple of times in its 11-year existence, and has a sort of amazing “repertoire” for a small town Midwestern museum. From the website: “Your art museum is home to major works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, Cézanne, Turner, Constable, Leutze…, O’Keeffe, Cassatt, Homer, Cole, Wyeth, and many more. The MMAM is more than you expect! ” https://www.mmam.org/

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi-
    We didn’t travel much when I was a kid so I don’t have a lot of stories.
    But I remember being in DC when I was 10 and I threw up in the Smithsonian. No idea what building, it just seems like a big hallway. Maybe we were trying to get outside. didn’t make it.
    And I remember being in Philadelphia at some science museum and seeing a huge pendulum and I was fascinated by that.
    I remember being about 14 and going with my dad to see a neighbors milking system as dad researched installing a pipeline in our dairy barn. And in the milkhouse there is a large glass jar, called the ‘Receiving Jar’ and all the milk rushes into that before being pumped into the tank. And I thought that was the coolest thing ever! All I wanted in life was that glass jar.
    It took a few years; we didn’t install that kind of system in the first place, but I got a jar eventually. and I still miss being in the milkhouse and seeing the milk rush into that jar…

    Liked by 6 people

  9. Another thing; I spent my childhood fascinated by the blue Colliers Science encyclopedia’s. And then this summer, at the air and space museum, to see Robert Goddard’s first liquid fueled rocket and the accompanying photo — THE SAME ONE AS FROM THE ENCYCLOPEDIA!– Wow… that was cool.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. When my mother died, my father was overwhelmed by grief. My erstwife and I began inviting him to go to various events with us. We just wanted to get him out of the home where my mother’s ghost was so vivid and constantly present.

    We were walking through the Art Institute after viewing a Dale Chihuly show when my father suddenly stopped by an oil painting by Diego Rivera. Rivera was a Mexican-born artist who was a giant in the period between the Great Depression and WW2. I was confused by my father’s interest. The painting showed a family of exceptionally unpleasant people. Dad began talking in astonishing detail about the family dynamics that affected the painting.

    Then I realized that Dad’s only art instructor was Xavier Martinez, a Mexican fellow who was one of Rivera’s closest buddies. Rivera had shared stories about the painting with Martinez, which is why my dad could talk about the painting as if he had been there when it was done.

    It was a shock for me and a reminder that the man I knew as my father had led a different life as a fine art painter before he became a husband, father and designer of stuffed toys.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. so your dad didn’t paint anymore?

      heya there’s a hobby steve that doesn’t require a lot of movement

      watercolors or pastels are pretty easy to clean up but i prefer acrylics

      i miss clyde

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      1. When my dad fell in love with my mother, he made a crucial decision. Until then art had been the love of his life. But he concluded that art was totally inadequate as a way of supporting a wife and family. The decision to get married coincided with his putting away his life as an artist, and he never looked back. But as a designer of stuffed toys, he used art in ways that he never imagined as a younger man.

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  11. Our family took a trip to Washington, DC when I was in high school. My aunt & uncle lived in Fairfax, VA which is practically a suburb of DC so we stayed there. Toured the White House, Smithsonians, Washington Monument, etc. The tour I enjoyed the most was visiting Mount Vernon and seeing George Washington’s home. I was touched by the feeling that he was just right there — and maybe just stepped away from his writing desk and left his glasses and such on the table. I remember writing in my journal about that whole trip.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. so your dad didn’t paint anymore?

      heya there’s a hobby steve that doesn’t require a lot of movement

      watercolors or pastels are pretty easy to clean up but i prefer acrylics

      i miss clyde

      Like

    2. i’ve been to that one when it was in an elementary school building in 72 or so
      i think they were building a new building if i remember correctly

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  12. There are interesting changes in the historical museums all over the South. Many grand old mansions have been preserved and converted to museums. More and more, historians have been researching and reconstructing slave living quarters on those places.

    Some of the most interesting work has taken place at Monticello, the palatial home of Thomas Jefferson. Researchers have discovered the living quarters of Sally Hemings, the attractive slave who gave birth to five of Jefferson’s children. Her living quarters are adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom, and yet earlier historians weren’t motivated to unearth and preserve them. That is changing.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. I can’t answer today’s question with just one example. Museums are the cheapest venues for entertaining a child when you are a broke single parent. Bell, Bakken, Science, Children’s, Walker, Minneapolis Institute – were all haunts for us in town.

    The Family Day program at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts was a favorite. One Sunday we cut designs in pieces of black plastic and affixed them to a big piece of paper, then took it outside, where volunteers applied ink using big print rollers. Then they laid it on the ground, covered it with a big piece of posterboard and then ran over it with a little steamroller! They did it a couple of times and the final print went home with us. We still have it in the attic!

    Another great museum we’ve visited was the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine. The summer we visited they were having a museum-wide pirate exhibition (Pirates of the Caribbean had come out that year). There was a great scavenger-hunt that took us all through the museum. Lots of fun and we went home with bandanas and eye patches!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. So many wonderful museum experiences as y’all have mentioned…my first museum experience was the Science and Industry in Chicago I still remember being captivated by slices of male and female bodies. The art museum in Chicago where I saw my first Van Gogh Sunflowers in “person” and a painting of nude bathers by? that I couldn’t resist touching it was so warm and human (and got chastised for doing so, of course…); the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in Albe France…Monet’s Waterlilies at the Louvre in room all it’s own…David sculpture in Florence…and the Bell Museum’s exhibit of the Swedish wildlife painter Bruno Liljefors…the Vasa Ship Museum in Stockholm…I won’t go on…but thanks for the question and stirring up old wonderful memories.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. you can go on
      nice list

      i had forgotten i killed a day in amsterdam at the van high museum and the anne frank museum

      daughters tour of florencecevart was a wowser and o know i have mentioned a couple times about the time i was solo and latched onto the high buck donors tour at the smithsonian

      what a back stage tour i got… wow

      Liked by 1 person

  15. The Vatican Museum in which I must include the “trip” to the Sistine Chapel. The signs directed to Sistina past statuary 1000’s of years old. The signs directed to Sistina on a wider corridor past marvelous paintings hundreds of years old. The signs directed to Sistina on a more narrow corridor past a hundred (? Well, it seemed like hundreds) busts of Popes. The signs directed to Sistina on endless steps worn down by millions of people. On I trudged until a small sign over the door declared, Sistina. Step over the threshold into hushed silence. Look up. Look to the right. Look to the left for a place to sit down against the wall. Don’t leave until they make you leave.

    Liked by 5 people

  16. Vivid memory from childhood: going to the King Tut exhibit (I think at the Field Museum) in Chicago. It was a beastly hot summer and blackouts were not uncommon, given the load on the electrical grid for air conditioning. We were part way through the exhibit when the lights went out. Frankly, I don’t remember much of the exhibit except the room we were in when we lost light – I was right by an exhibit box housing a gold cobra with red eyes. That cobra might have been attached to something, but I sure don’t remember it. I just remember the glittery ruby eyes. And being disappointed that we couldn’t really “see” the rest of the exhibit as we all had to file out in an orderly fashion from the darkened museum following a museum guard.

    As an adult: the museums of Oslo, Norway. Standing in Henrik Ibsen’s apartment and walking the streets he took each day to his preferred spot at a local hotel. An entire museum of Edvard Munch – that was an electric and melancholy place all at once. The WWII museum and its focus on the Norwegian Resistance was a powerful walk through time. And the Folk Museum – standing in a pre-Reformation stave church that still had visible paintings from shortly after it was built, a church that, until it was moved to the museum property, was the church my ancestor’s (grandmother’s side) had attended – it was moved shortly after my great grandmother was baptized. Standing in that little wooden building really was like standing inside history.

    But oh, the Touch and See Room at the Bell. Always my favorite spot to visit when I went on field trips there. The soft furs, the fascinating bones. Sigh.

    Liked by 4 people

  17. We had an experience outside the American Museum of Natural History located on Central Park in New York City. It was late January. Deep winter is a really good time to visit New York if you are into museums (which I am). The crowds are down. Kids are in school. Rates for hotels are a bit (just a bit) better. It was snowing. Two whole inches were expected. Result? The City is shutting down. The family arrived at noon at the museum entrance. No lines. Just about to pay the entry fees and the guy at the entrance says, “Where are you people from?! Don’t you know there is a blizzard?!” “Minnesota!” We exclaimed in unison. He did not let us in as the Museum was closing early. He did direct us to a great Chinese restaurant in Lower Manhattan.

    Liked by 5 people

  18. Sorry for these extra postings but the museum thingy has got me going but I’ll keep it brief. While working outside Madrid, Spain, I was able to go multiple times to the art museum The Prado. I had often seen book pictures of the paintings but never realized how HUUUUGE (sorry for the Trumpism) many of them are. The most famous is Las Meninas.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Meninas
    Basically a painting 10 feet by 10 feet. Your perspective changes as you move closer or farther from the work and see the details. amazing to see in person

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Post away – we don’t get tired of your voice here!

      AND, although you aren’t close enough to get to Blevins’ Book Club, I think you’d like our current book “Archy & Mehitabel” by Don Marquis. Here’s one of Archy’s maxims for you:
      don t cuss the climate
      it probably doesn t like you
      any better
      than you like it

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Back in 1983. At the Torrejón Air Force Base. We did heat welded rubber flooring for two months. I choose that over working in Saudi Arabia for a German ceramic tile company for nine months.

        Liked by 3 people

  19. Sometimes, it’s difficult to resonate to TB topics. One is food; the other is museums. I don’t recall ever in being one.

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  20. So many great and grand museums, and so many small, local gems in out of way places. Two of the museums that fall in the latter category are the Bily Clocks Museum in Spillville, Iowa, and the Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum in Decorah. I wasn’t expecting much from the Vesterheim (don’t ask why – but I wasn’t), but I was pleasantly surprised by fine collection of all manner of Norwegian furniture, artifacts and household goods that early immigrants had brought with them. Gave a wonderful insight into what was important to them. The Bily Clocks Museum is really something to see. All of these elaborately hand carved clocks created by two bachelor farmers. It’s a small museum housed in a regular house, the second floor of which was once occupied by the composer Antonin Dvorak and his family.
    http://www.visitiowa.org/business/bily-clocks-museum-and-antonin-dvorak-exhibit.html
    Both museums well worth seeing if your travels bring you to Iowa.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Don’t forget the Hjemkomst Museum in Moothead, MN, which houses a viking ship a guy made and sailed from Duluth (I think) to Norway.

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  22. I always like the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, but never more than when the Art In Bloom exhibit is going on in May. The flowers are so creatively integrated into the artworks. It is always inspiring.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. I don’t get it that birds, butterflies and animals are killed and displayed in museums in order for people to gawp at them. Much better for all, especially the victims, for people to go out and see them in the wild, doing what they do naturally. That way, people can observe them living their lives as they should be lived and enjoyed and educated by the onlookers.

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