There's a little drama embedded in each of the dioramas at the Bell Museum of Natural History. Constructed from paint and taxidermy, the scenes depict Minnesota wildlife in realistic but unavoidably static poses.
But look closely in the upper left corner of the timber wolf exhibit, for example. High on a snowy hill, a deer peers from the trees at three oblivious wolves in the foreground, observing would-be predators before they've sensed her presence. It's a memento mori in the seemingly placid scene, a subtle reminder of nature's life-and-death stakes.
It's also a strategy for engaging imaginations in a museum whose goal, in addition to preserving specimens, is helping visitors connect with nature's inhabitants.
"Bringing these stories to life is our challenge," said Susan Weller, the museum's executive director.
The Bell, founded in 1872 by legislative act and located on the University of Minnesota campus, also provides materials used by students and researchers. Visitors are encouraged to touch certain items, including skulls, live cockroaches and a stuffed brown bear.
But the stately dioramas, created in the 1920s and '30s, form the heart of the Bell. Back when Minnesotans didn't travel much, they provided rare glimpses of the state's wildlife. Today's viewers can see how the state has changed: The dioramas are paired with recent photos of their locations, some now hardly recognizable.
But how to interest today's media-jaded visitors, able to see any creature in the world with the click of a mouse? Museum officials are looking for "a more immersive way" to display Minnesota nature.
"I don't know how it would work, don't know if we could do it," Weller said. "But we should dream big."
Katy Read • 612-673-4583