Lansing Shepard is co-author of a fascinating new book celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Bell Museum on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota.
Together with Don Luce, Barbara Coffin and Gwen Schagrin, Shepard documents the history of a Minnesota cultural institution that in 2018 moved to its new location, where it continues its original charge of conducting cutting-edge science, while also informing Minnesotans in innovative ways about the natural world in which they live — and have lived.
Titled A Natural Curiosity: The Story of the Bell Museum ($34.95. University of Minnesota Press), the beautifully illustrated book recounts the high hopes of the visionaries who founded the Bell in 1872, as well as the equally high hopes and dedication of its supporters and leaders in the last century and a half.
Below Shepard talks about the Bell and its importance to Minnesota — and to Minnesotans. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: The Legislature founded the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History in 1872. Why?
A: The intent was to conduct a geological and natural history survey to assess the natural resources of the state. The point, primarily, was to understand what was commercially exploitable, as timber and agriculture. The Minnesota survey was unique because it was placed at the University of Minnesota and not within a state agency. Minnesota's survey also was intended to create a baseline for further study of the state's resources. Additionally, a natural history museum was to be created so the public could see the birds and other specimens, and information, that were collected. At that point in American history, enough resources were beginning to disappear that it became increasingly important to know what remained before it was gone.
Q: Where did James Ford Bell, whose name graced the original museum, fit in?
A: Bell was the founder of General Mills and an avid outdoorsman and conservationist, which he had in common with Thomas Sadler Roberts, a noted birder who was the museum's third director. Like Roberts, Bell understood what was going on with the country's natural resources. Largely because of this awareness, the museum became a personal project of Bell's. Clearly without his financial and political support the museum wouldn't have existed.
Q: The latest rendition of the museum, now called the Bell Museum, opened in 2018 and is widely considered to be a spectacular achievement. Yet its charge, though greatly enlarged in the ways it informs the public, is generally the same as its forerunner: to inventory and collect specimens of the state's resources to be studied and preserved. A massive undertaking then and now.
A: That's especially true considering that the original "museum'' consisted of only two rooms. Today the museum houses more than 1 million specimens.
Q: "Natural history'' is a broad and often misunderstood term. What does it mean and why is it important?
A: As a favored science, natural history has risen, fallen and risen again during the 150 years of the Bell Museum's history. Essentially, natural history provides an understanding of the many changes that have occurred over time to the world's flora and fauna. This is especially valuable in the context of changes to our environment, such as the presence and retreating of glaciers, and valuable as well considering the many man-related changes to our environment that have occurred throughout history. By collecting and documenting various specimens, museums such as the Bell can help researchers and the public understand these changes over time, in part so we can better appreciate our current times.
Q: The success of the new Bell Museum, which also houses the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium, is due in large part to its modern and innovative design and the multiple media forms it employs to invite the public in and to help them understand the world we live in. The "old'' James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History, by contrast, often depended on lectures and photography, in addition to its Minnesota habitat dioramas and other displays, to communicate to the public.
A: Television changed everything for the museum, as it did for many facets of society. People who before its advent were quite happy to attend lectures at the museum became in many cases content to stay home and watch similar presentations on TV. Other societal and technological changes that affected the museum accelerated in the 1960s. The environmental movement, for example, created an explosion of interest in animal and similar nature films. The Bell and its leaders responded in their own innovative ways. Still, the museum's relevance, as it were, diminished, as did the relevance of other natural history museums. At this time, the science of natural history also suffered compared to other, emerging disciplines, such as ecology, molecular biology and genetics. As consequences, funding for the Bell became a challenge, as did its standing within the university.
Q: This was in the 1980s?
A: Yes, generally. But ultimately, natural history withstood these challenges, because it became very clear that to understand ecology and evolution, as just two examples, genetics can take you only so far. The bread and butter of the Bell and all natural history museums is understanding evolution and what drives it. Within this you need to understand the relationships between, and the hierarchy among, various flora and fauna — again in the context of changes to the environment over time. This way we can better understand not only the earth's 'present,' but our present, as well as the past from which they developed.
Q: As the 2000s approached, to survive, and thrive, the Bell needed, essentially, to reinvigorate its public face. Otherwise, few people outside of academia would know of the museum's work, regardless of its value.
A: The Bell's board of directors and staff knew as early as the 1990s that they needed a new facility. Though ultimately successful, the process to get the funding and a building site was very complicated. To succeed as a modern museum, its architecture needed to be correct and the many hi-tech forms of entertainment and education that parents and especially kids expect today needed to be incorporated. The Bell has long been a leader in these types of communication efforts, notably with the advent of its Touch and See room in 1968.
Q: While chronicling the museum's 150 years of challenges and accomplishments, the Bell's commemorative book ends on a high note with the success of the 'new' Bell.
A: The public's response to the new museum and to the planetarium contained within it has been tremendous — this while the museum is doing all the scientific work, and more, it was originally charged to do.