The Legislature has a chance in its final days to atone for a long-festering funding embarrassment and set in motion construction of a new Bell Museum of Natural History and Planetarium.

Founded by legislative mandate in 1872, the Bell’s charge has been to “collect, preserve, skillfully prepare, display, and interpret our state’s diverse animal and plant life for scholarly research and teaching and for public appreciation, enrichment, and enjoyment.”

Located on the U’s Minneapolis campus, the Bell has long served many masters. Faculty and students work and study there, and the museum boasts scientific collections totaling nearly 4 million specimens, including mammals, birds, fish, plants, mollusks and insects.

Busloads of school kids are regular visitors, and the Bell’s valuable art collections feature, among many others, the exquisite work of Minnesotan Francis Lee Jacques, who also painted many of the museum’s dioramas.

And the Bell’s ongoing “Audubon and the art of birds” exhibit traces the evolution of ornithological art from the Renaissance to today. Included are restored prints from a rare collection of John James Audubon’s work donated to the museum in 1928.

Given Minnesotans’ well-documented fascination with the natural world, and their dependence on it economically, culturally and historically, keeping the Bell current in its presentations and appearance would seem a no-brainer.

Instead, the museum — or at least its building — is its own artifact. Constructed 75 years ago, the Art Deco structure is dark and uninspiring, and seems closer to 100.

In some ways, the U can be forgiven for treating the Bell as an outlier, and not fully embracing its rebuilding over the years. Money is tight, needs are many, and the Bell ultimately is a state facility, with its governance assigned to the university.

Besides, why should the U’s administration support a proper learning environment for science, technology and related education and outreach when there are so many athletic facilities to upgrade, coaches to buy out and bills to be paid for canceling Gophers football games the team fears it might lose?

To its credit, the Legislature tried to fund a new Bell in recent years, only to have the idea knocked out of bonding bills by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Some assign Pawlenty’s dissent to politics. Others say the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Minnesota Zoo already fill the state’s science niche — a statement that itself argues for more and better education.

This session, U president Eric Kaler dialed up his own brand of indifference to a new Bell when he said, “The University of Minnesota recognizes the Bell Museum as a great asset to the state. However … we support funding for the Bell Museum as long as it does not divert money from projects requested by the regents for the university.”

So, when will Minnesotans build a new museum that more fairly represents their keen interest in, and dependence on, the natural world?

And when will the Twin Cities again have a planetarium, after a 12-year absence?

Maybe soon.

Thanks to some creative thinking at the Capitol, $51.5 million for a new Bell museum and 120-seat planetarium on the U’s St. Paul campus (with, thankfully, ample parking) has been removed from the bonding bill and included instead in a supplemental budget bill.

Technically, the money isn’t in the budget bill. Attached to it instead is a recommendation that the U sell $51.5 million in bonds to help build a new Bell. (Another $6 million in private funds would be raised.) In exchange, the Legislature boosted the U’s base funding to cover the debt service.

The deal satisfies House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, as well as Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who has advocated for a new Bell for 10 years.

“I think it’s a very good resolution,” Thissen said late Thursday afternoon. “The new museum will be well used.”

Said Hausman, “I think that building a new Bell Museum, particularly with a new planetarium, will be one of our legacy issues.”

Of course nothing at the Capitol is final until the place is gaveled to silence for another session. What’s more, the supplemental budget bill, which remained in conference committee Thursday afternoon, still could be scrapped or rewritten before the Legislature adjourns Monday.

Furthermore, Gov. Dayton must sign the bill before the many long-suffering supporters of a new Bell Museum can breathe more easily.

“It’s the state’s natural history museum and the state’s obligation to fund it,” said Steve Birke, a retired Target executive and chair of the Bell Museum advisory board. “What’s called ‘STEM’ education is critical to Minnesota’s future — science, technology, engineering and math. And that type of education is the Bell’s specialty.”

 

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com