Standing on a ridge near where the Baptism River flows into Lake Superior, three wolves sniff the ground and air, trying to pick up the scent of a deer watching them from a distant forest.
These wolves have stood in the same place for 75 years, in a glass case at the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis, surveying an evocative vista painted by famed wildlife artist Francis Lee Jaques.
Soon they’ll move to a new home, however. On Monday morning, museum staff will remove the glass from several cases to inspect and document every detail of the exhibits as they prepare for a new Bell Museum on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
Though the move has been in the works for more than 10 years, it is not without a bit of controversy. The Bell will keep most, but not all, of the dioramas, and a retired New York museum associate has tried unsuccessfully to rally public support to persuade university officials to leave them be in the old building — even as everything else moves to the new museum.
“Tearing the dioramas out of the Bell would be like ripping Michelangelo’s murals out of the Sistine Chapel,” wrote Stephen C. Quinn in a recent Facebook post. An artist for nearly 40 years at the American Museum of Natural History — the institution whose dioramas famously sprung to life in the hit movie “Night at the Museum” — Quinn has urged followers to contact university and public officials objecting to the Bell’s plan.
A half dozen letters have arrived, all from the East Coast, said Bell officials.
“He’s very well-intentioned, and I certainly understand his attachments to Jaques’ dioramas, but he doesn’t understand the problem,” said James Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums in Washington, D.C., and a grandson of the museum’s founder. “The university is not going to have a building sitting there in the middle of the campus with no purpose other than to hold some dioramas. The Bell is woefully in need of repair and upgrading, and that’s just not going to happen.”
After a decade of seeking legislative support, Bell officials finally secured state funding in June for a new $57.5 million museum. They argued that the existing Bell is energy-inefficient, lacks modern climate controls and has inadequate handicapped access. And, they said, its exhibition halls are dark and claustrophobic, and the main gallery is poorly lit, inflexible and stuck in the basement.
Recently a hose burst and, overnight, dumped 1,000 gallons of water into a basement storage room. It only damaged packing material and crates, but the incident alarmed museum officials. The most recent estimate, done several years ago, said it would cost $20 million to bring the building up to code.
The Bell plans to move 11 of its 16 large dioramas, including all nine painted by Jaques. They are the centerpiece of the Bell’s $20 million art collection, which includes about 90 dioramas of various sizes plus paintings, prints and art by John James Audubon and other naturalists and wildlife artists.
A number of smaller dioramas will be moved intact, but some deteriorating scenes, and others that do not feature Minnesota animals, will be dismantled or repurposed.
New ways of teaching
The wolf exhibit actually led to the Bell’s creation.
In the 1930s, James Ford Bell, a founder of General Mills, wanted the university to add a wolf diorama to its zoology collection. At the time Minnesota was the only state in the Lower 48 with a wolf population, but the beasts were regarded as malevolent, dangerous vermin to be killed for bounties. An ardent conservationist, Bell wanted to portray them accurately as sociable hunters. He offered to put up half the cost of a new building. Federal funds provided the rest.
Bell also hired Jaques away from the American Museum of Natural History. Having grown up and learned his trade in Minnesota, Jaques knew its birds and animals intimately and did some of his best work for the Bell.
While the dioramas are cherished records of the state’s natural history, museum officials say they are less useful in educating the public in the environmental, biological and social issues that are the key to understanding nature today. Contemporary visitors, especially children, are accustomed to interactive displays and dash past the dioramas to the popular “Touch and See” room where they can hold a live snake, pet a buffalo hide and make animal-paw prints with rubber stamps.
“So much can be done with video and interactive Web-based stuff now,” said Bell director Susan Weller. “In the 1940s, technology was the diorama. But today we have so many other ways to bring these stories to life.”
Weller hopes that in modern quarters, the dioramas can be enlivened with multisensory aids such as nature sounds or scents, touch tables and activity kiosks.
“It isn’t that we don’t love the dioramas,” she said. “It’s that we love them so much that we want them to be appreciated by more than the few priests and priestesses of the dioramahood.”
The new museum’s design won’t be finalized until an architect is picked, possibly in January. Besides dioramas, it is expected to incorporate a 120-seat planetarium, galleries for traveling exhibits, classrooms, and a cafe. The 12-acre site, at Cleveland and Larpenteur avenues about a mile west of the state fairgrounds, will have plenty of room for parking and school bus drop-offs — features badly lacking at the museum’s present location on the university’s Minneapolis campus. Preliminary landscape sketches show ponds and water features as well.
What will happen to the present Bell building is unclear. “No decisions have been made,” said Tim Busse, a university spokesman.
While moving dioramas is a challenge, it is a task conservators and art handlers have undertaken successfully in the past.
“I have visited every natural history museum in North America to interview everyone who has moved dioramas,” said curator Don Luce. “We’ve tested for lead, mercury, asbestos and arsenic, and examined the adhesives used. So we have done as much as we can except consulting structural engineers before we take them apart.”