This weekend marks the return of the woolly mammoth and giant beaver to Minnesota, 10,000 years after their kind last trod the state. This weekend, Minnesotans will settle into recliners and view the night sky again, 16 years after the stars went dark at the Minneapolis Central Library. This weekend, Minnesotans will discover anew the magic that results when art, science and education combine in one thoughtfully curated space.
The new Bell Museum opens this weekend at the northern edge of the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus. A tickets-only celebration Friday night will be followed by extended hours, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., on Saturday and regular hours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., on Sunday and every day but holidays thereafter. (Go to www.bellmuseum.umn.edu for admission information.)
We think the new Bell is destined to be a beloved venue for studying and appreciating Minnesota’s natural environment — much as was the old James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History, which served as a magnet for scholars and visitors to the university’s Minneapolis campus for 77 years.
The new Bell is also a fine spot for appreciating the good that can be wrought by a state government that’s committed to public education — and by the persistence of one skillful legislator, St. Paul DFL Rep. Alice Hausman.
The Legislature’s desire to educate Minnesotans about their state’s natural environment dates from the early days of statehood. In 1872, the Legislature directed the university’s Board of Regents to collect specimens of “mineral, vegetable and animal substances and organisms” and see that they were “preserved for public inspection … in charge of a proper scientific curator.” The effort was deemed important enough to be granted space in Old Main when it was the university’s only building.
The pioneers’ vision for a state natural history museum captivated Hausman more than 130 years later, when the circa-1940 art deco building that bore the name of its chief benefactor, James Ford Bell of General Mills, had deteriorated beyond repair. She sought funding for a new Bell for nearly a decade. The measures were vetoed twice by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in 2008 and 2009. In frustration, the University of Minnesota dropped the Bell from its request list in 2010.
Yet Hausman persisted. “I just can’t ever give up on anything if I think it’s the right thing to do,” she told an editorial writer in 2013. She finally prevailed in 2014 with an agreement for $51.5 million in university borrowing, with the state promising to pay $3.5 million per year in debt service for 25 years. By then the project had expanded to include a new planetarium, replacing the one lost in 2002 when the 1960s-era Minneapolis Central Library was demolished.
The result is a gem of a museum that’s bound to delight casual visitors while serving scientists, historians and artists. Our bet is that it will be so welcome that memories of the long legislative struggle to fund a new Bell will soon fade. Before they do, the museum should find a way to pay lasting tribute to Hausman.