A Minnesota legislator's push for new Bell Museum

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 13, 2013 - 5:06 PM

Her case is that the Bell Museum of Natural History belongs to the state and is the state’s responsibility.

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A 2009 rendering of the main entrance of the new Bell Museum. Long-drawn plans for the stone, steel and glass building include classrooms, a cafe and a 300-seat auditorium. Outside, visitors would witness research among acres of prairie and forest.

Photo: Rhonda Prast, Thorbeck Architects

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“No bill is ever dead until they’ve been home for three days,” the late Gerry Nelson of the Associated Press once taught this Capitol reporting rookie.

I’m revising Gerry’s rule. Last week brought the resurrection of a bill that’s been dead for four years. Funding for a new Bell Museum of Natural History via a $47.5 million bond sale authorization rose from the ashes of lawmaking futility and appeared in the House’s $800 million bonding bill.

From that phoenix, I take several lessons: Never underestimate the determination of a farm girl from Kansas. Or the clout of a Capital Investment Committee chair. Or the persistence of a good idea. Or the price of delaying the inevitable.

The farm girl grew up to be DFLer Alice Hausman, She’s a former hospital manager, a Lutheran pastor’s wife, and a 13-term force to be reckoned with in the Minnesota House, representing a district that includes the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota.

She’s the capital investment, a k a bonding, committee chair. That’s a position of considerable power on the Legislature’s table of organization. Hausman has been in that seat before, from 2007 to 2010. She knows how to put it to her desired use — and she much desires a modern, functional home for the one and only state natural history museum and its newly acquired planetarium.

It matters not to her that a new Bell Museum was dropped in 2010 from the University of Minnesota’s bonding wish list and had not returned. The university “had given up,” she said, after back-to-back vetoes by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2008 and 2009.

Hausman had not. “I just can’t ever give up on anything if I think it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

It also does not concern her that her fondness for the Bell project would be seen in some quarters as favoritism for her own legislative district — just as Pawlenty’s vetoes were widely seen as a slap at her.

“Anybody who knows me knows that’s not why I’m doing this,” she said, pointing to her personal advocacy for projects from Red Wing to Chatfield to East Grand Forks.

Rather, her push for a new Bell is best described with a good Lutheran term — stewardship. Her case is that the Bell Museum belongs to the state and is the state’s responsibility. Good stewardship requires its preservation for the benefit of a well-educated populace, and that can’t happen in a 74-year-old building.

Hausman is persistent, but no more so than the Bell itself. It was birthed not by the university, or by its 1930s benefactor and namesake, General Mills executive James Ford Bell, but by the Legislature — in 1872.

Even before the university had graduated its first class, pioneer legislators decreed that is was the “duty of the Board of Regents” to accumulate, catalog, house and display specimens of Minnesota’s mineral, plant and animal life, “in rooms of convenient access and properly warmed, lighted, ventilated and furnished,” and available without charge to the public.

It can be argued that the Board of Regents has been in violation of that ancient statute for some time. The little Art Deco museum at the corner 17th Avenue and University Avenue SE is badly out of date.

It lacks “convenient access” for the young, old and handicapped. Climate control is so lacking that some exhibits cannot be displayed during humid summer months. The museum’s famous dioramas displaying natural scenes, once acclaimed as the best in the nation, are at risk of deterioration.

And though the Bell accommodated an average of 50,000 visitors per year in recent years, it has the potential to serve many more — especially since 2011, when it became the home of the wonderful planetarium that lived in the old Minneapolis Central Library until it came down in 2002.

Still, the Bell stayed off the university’s bonding list. By disregarding that list and reviving the Bell project while also whacking a requested $125 million repair budget down to $30 million, Hausman risked irritating university leaders.

But no official complaint emanated from Morrill Hall when Hausman unveiled her bill’s $103 million total for the university — not about the Bell, anyway. Hausman heard disappointment that the repair line in her bill for the university is $30 million while for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, it’s $50 million. “Asset preservation is a greater burden for MnSCU. It’s bigger,” Hausman noted.

Two blocks away at the Bell, director Susan Weller allowed, “We’ve all gotten used to the fact that the Legislature works in its own ways.”

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