The morning temperature outside the University of Minnesota’s new Bell Museum hovered below zero, but Shannon Larson knelt on the warm-looking Lake Pepin beach, using large photographs to guide the painstaking work of setting twigs and sand just right.
Larson is part of a team that has been moving the Bell Museum’s renowned Minnesota natural history dioramas from their sooty old digs on the university’s East Bank campus to a gleaming $79 million showcase on the edge of the U’s St. Paul campus.
After months of delicate work transplanting the dioramas, museum staff members will now begin installing brand-new displays and moving their offices.
The new museum is expected to be ready for its annual onslaught of summer campers starting June 11. It will open to the general public soon after.
So, what does it take to move 10 huge dioramas created to fill a 1940s-era Art Deco block of a building into a new, climate- controlled, precision-lit space of wood and glass and stone?
It starts with knocking down a wall this past summer to get the dioramas out because no door was large enough.
Crews used cranes to lift the massive, curved paintings that weigh up to 10,000 pounds out of the building and onto trucks that moved them to St. Paul. There, another crane swung them into place before all the exterior walls were erected.
In the months since, workers have been meticulously cleaning everything from stuffed birds to hundreds of handmade wax plants, repairing and repainting taxidermy that had faded a bit over the decades and recreating the displays, right down to the placement of leaves.
“I am elated,” said Terry Brown, who along with Larson and teammate Terry Chase, is working to complete the diorama reinstallation over the next few weeks.
On Friday of last week, while Larson was working on Lake Pepin, Chase was perfecting the sand pigment in the sandhill crane diorama.
Meanwhile, Brown said he’s spent 430 hours a month over the past several months just to get the museum’s flora and fauna to look flawless, including using powdered pigments to refresh the colors of bird wings and removing varnish from the hide of a bull moose. He estimates restoring each of the museum’s 65 to 70 birds took up to 16 hours.
“I work a lot of hours because I’m having too much fun to go home,” he said.
Much of the job has involved deep cleaning. Despite nearly 80 years behind glass, years of proximity to a coal fired power plant and decades of visitors smoking cigarettes in the museum left the displays sooty and dingy.
So everything was cleaned before moving and cleaned again after moving, said Andria Waclawski, a museum spokeswoman. Non-reflective glass and precise lighting will enliven the displays even more, she said.
In addition to the dioramas, the new Bell Museum boasts a shiny planetarium to feature Minnesota’s night sky, as well as a number of classrooms and exhibits. A new Pleistocene diorama features a woolly mammoth.
The new building, on Larpenteur Avenue across from the Gibbs Farm Museum in Falcon Heights, is the fifth location for the Bell Museum, Waclawski said. One of the dioramas was finished in 1919-20, she said. The rest were created in the building that had been the museum’s home since 1940.
Museum officials had been discussing a move to a new facility for at least a decade, said Adrienne Wiseman, director of business and marketing.
Once funding for the new building was approved, she said, planning the move has been a bit like disassembling and reassembling a massive jigsaw puzzle over the past year. Workers broke ground on Earth Day, April 22, 2016. Now, a storied museum is poised to reopen.
“We want it to be perfect,” Wiseman said of the work that is just beginning to wind down. “It was an exercise in problem-solving by really smart people.”
Said Waclawski: “These are some of the best natural history dioramas in the world.”