After more than 75 years at the heart of the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, the Bell Museum of Natural History is moving on. It will officially break ground Friday for a new $79.2 million complex near the State Fairgrounds that will be a northern gateway to the U’s St. Paul campus.
Renamed the Bell Museum + Planetarium, the new facility will have a 120-seat domed planetarium/theater, expanded galleries, interactive exhibitions, traditional dioramas and up-to-the-minute technology.
The 5-acre site will be landscaped with native Minnesota trees and plants, rainwater ponds, and a pollinator garden for the museum’s bees.
“One of the biggest things is we’re bringing a public planetarium back to the Twin Cities where there hasn’t been one for years,” said Steven Lott, the museum’s chief operating officer. “And, boring as it is, we’ll finally have our own parking with 122 spaces where people can come and walk right into the building.”
The new museum is scheduled to open in summer 2018.
Designed by the Minneapolis architecture firm Perkins+Will, the boxy structure will be partly clad in Minnesota white pine and weathering steel that gradually darkens to velvety bonze. An atrium will be fitted with etched glass to divert birds so they won’t crash into the building.
Basic construction and landscaping will cost $64.2 million, which has already been raised. The Legislature provided $51.5 million in bonding, the U contributed $6.7 million and private sources chipped in $6 million.
Bell officials are seeking an additional $15 million for program support, endowment, technology upgrades and completing an additional 1,500 square feet of temporary exhibition galleries that otherwise would be left unfinished.
The extra money also will pay for outdoor learning centers, including a rooftop telescope-observation platform, a solar station and a Minnesota-geology plaza.
“The museum will be a state-of-the-art 21st-century building, but we have big hopes and dreams and those are all on our wish list,” said advancement director Beverly Anglum.
The $15 million goal includes $4 million to launch a new Diorama Legacy Society to preserve and interpret the museum’s famous three-dimensional scenes in which taxidermied birds and animals (including wolves, moose and sandhill cranes) are displayed in illusionistic settings before magnificent backdrops painted by Francis Lee Jaques.
One of the 20th century’s most accomplished wildlife artists, Jaques, who grew up near Aitkin, Minn., painted nine large dioramas for the Bell, all of which will move to the new building.
The dioramas will be arranged to reflect Minnesota’s North Woods, prairie and other biomes.
Staff members want the galleries to include new interactive information about, for example, the animals’ habitats, life cycles, migration routes and the impact of climate change.
“The Bell isn’t just a place where scientific knowledge is coldly presented; there’s a lot of art and culture as well,” said George Weiblen, a U botany professor and the museum’s interim science director.
The planetarium is a new Bell feature resulting from a 2011 merger with the Minnesota Planetarium Society, which previously was located at the Minneapolis Central Library.
As planned, it will be a domed theater equipped with advanced digital technology capable of interactive explorations of everything from distant solar systems to virtual journeys into the human body or nanoscale views of molecules.
“Jules Verne-type stuff is now possible with this new technology,” Weiblen said. “It’s basically traveling with a laptop through data sets with visitors watching the journey unfold. That’s very different from the old star-ball planetarium where they turn off the lights and stars spin around in the sky.”
Old building’s future?
The current Bell building on the U’s Minneapolis campus will close Jan. 2, 2017.
The museum, which has a staff of 24 and an annual budget of about $3 million, expects to expand both its educational staff and programs at the new site but has not yet determined costs.
Visitors — including school kids, adults and minority communities — are projected to increase to about 105,000 annually from 45,000 now.
The future of the much-loved but outdated 1940 building is in limbo. Its climate controls and telecommunication services are outmoded, and handicap access is inadequate. The most recent cost estimate, now several years old, said $20 million would be needed to bring the building up to code.
“The university is evaluating potential future uses for the Bell, but no final decisions have been made,” said Tim Busse, a U spokesman.