Three years of construction work is nothing when you reflect on the 3.5-billion-year-old hunk of Morton Gneiss — no relation to Minnesota Nice — that stands outside the state’s newest museum.
The long wait finally ends Friday when the Bell Museum opens the bird-friendly glass doors to its Minne-centric new home. (Friday is a ticketed preview party, with regular hours beginning Saturday.) Some pieces are revamped returnees from the cramped quarters in Minneapolis where the Bell spent eight decades. But there’s tons of new stuff, including an 11-foot-tall woolly mammoth, a domed planetarium and a multimedia-rich tour through Minnesota’s natural history.
To narrow down the vastness of the museum (it contains 60 percent more public space than the old Bell) we've compiled a guide with 11 don’t-miss highlights.
1. Travel back to the Ice Age
Where ya been all my life, woolly? Every single one of the thick hairs on his body (yes, the model is based on a male mammoth) was individually glued on by artists at Blue Rhino Studio in Eagan. He’s positioned in front of a giant wall of ice, alongside another extinct animal, the giant beaver, plus an Ice Age survivor, the musk ox — which apparently was intelligent enough to find ice-free refuges from predators, including humans.
2. See wolves on the prowl
Three wolves move in on a giant moose in “The Encounter,” a multipart bronze sculpture created in 1999 by artist Ian Dudley. In actuality, wolves wouldn’t be able to kill a moose that large, said Bell communications manager Andria Waclawski. For its reinstallation outside the new Bell, Dudley added three ravens to the mix. These birds often follow wolves, waiting until they can scavenge the carcasses of their prey.
3. All eyes on the starry skies
Inside the giant, practically seamless dome of the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium, visitors can literally watch the Big Bang, which was really hot, causing the creation of the approximately 14-billion-year-old universe. Seriously, it’s the most exciting light show this side of the universe. (Sorry, Dark Matter is not invited to this party.)
4. Hear kids bring a diorama to life
Originally created in the 1940s, a restored diorama of three wolves hunting on Shovel Point in Tettegouche State Park in Silver Bay and three other dioramas are brought to life through creative narrations by two Dakota kids and two Ojibwe kids from the Bdote Learning Center in Minneapolis, whose tribes are native to Minnesota (a name actually derived from the Dakota words “mni sota,” meaning “land of sky-blue water”).
5. Rub an elephant skull
The giant skull of an elephant mingles with one from an African lion and an enormous hippo — and visitors can touch them all. That’s the most fun thing about the Bell’s exploratory Touch & See Lab, celebrating 50 years as the first-ever museum discovery room. There are lots of bugs and reptiles to see, too — don’t miss the really gross bat cave cockroach — and student guides can give you a closer look.
6. Get up close with ancient Minnesota
The Bell’s heaviest feature, literally, is the selection of Minnesota geological specimens scattered outside the building. One of the world’s oldest rocks, the gneiss was exposed when glacial melt carved out the Minnesota River Valley 10,000 years ago. A giant chunk of 1.8-billion-year-old St. Cloud granite is a remnant of mountains that once formed in central Minnesota. There’s a 2-billion-year-old slab of iron ore from the Mesabi Range along with the relatively young Platteville Limestone, created 450 million years ago when a tropical sea covered the state. Yes, Minnesota “rocks” it (pun intended).
7. Ooh-ahh over these mussels
There’s an entire case devoted to 28 types of mussels, but they’re definitely not what’s for dinner. These are all samples from Lake Pepin, home to most of the state’s 50-plus varieties of freshwater mussels. As bottom dwellers, mussels are vital to the ecosystem, doing things like filtering water and sifting algae. They also are indicators of the water's health. In the early 1900s, when Lake Pepin was the center of a big button industry, mussels were overhunted for their iridescent shells. Nowadays, the invasive zebra mussel threatens the ecosystem by killing other mussels, clogging water intakes and filtering out microscopic plankton that other creatures depend on.
8. Go green on the rooftop
Head to the second floor and hang out on the solar-powered green roof. The observation deck has mounts for telescopes that can be brought out for events. Or just enjoy the view. The deck overlooks sustainable ponds that drain stormwater from the roof. The entire building is compatible with LEED standards.
9. Flock to the gallery
In addition to the Bell’s famous animal dioramas, check out some historical two-dimensional artworks inspired by the great natural resources of Minnesota, located on a wall just past Sir Woolly. The Audubon tradition of studying birds in nature guides the paintings of John Ruthven, who captures eiders in flight. George Browne portrays two ducks on their way to landing in a lake. If you want to see nature, without actually being in nature, this is the place.
10. Visit a cabinet of curiosities
You don’t have to exit through the gift shop, but you’ll probably want to, especially since there’s a case of cute mini-mammoths! Located next to the main entrance, the shop is inspired by the Victorian-era cabinet of curiosities — encyclopedic collections of oddities that predated the idea of a natural history museum. (Established in 1872, the Bell itself dates to the Victorian era.)
11. Play the mating game
Sandhill cranes are known for their loud trumpeting, but they also do “unison calling” as part of a funky mating dance. An interactive video teaches anyone to dance like a sandhill crane getting ready to mate. If you figure out how to do the dance perfectly, you’ll get the mate. If not, you’ll just dance solo in the middle of the museum like a weirdo.
Bell Museum opening
Preview party: 6-11 p.m. Fri. with music by Ashley DuBose, DIY art, planetarium previews, cocktails. $40.
Saturday: Various activities from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sunday: Meet Bell scientists and curators, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Where: 2088 W. Larpenteur Av., Falcon Heights.
Admission: $9-$12 plus $6-$8 for planetarium shows.
Info: 612-626-9660 or bellmuseum.umn.edu