The design of the new museum, as well as its exhibits, celebrate the diversity of Minnesota’s natural resources

By Joel Hoekstra

Natural historians measure time in epochs rather than minutes. So to some, the dozen or so years it took to get the new Bell Museum funded, planned, and built may have seemed like little more than the blink of an eye. But to others, the July opening of the 90,000-square-foot facility in St. Paul, complete with a state-of-the-art, 120-seat digital planetarium, is the culmination of a very long journey.

For much of the last century, the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History was housed in a 67,000-square-foot building on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus in Minneapolis. More than 100 detailed dioramas by Francis Lee Jaques and other wildlife artists drew thousands of curious eyes every year, but as visitor interest and the size of the museum’s collections grew over time, finding space for exhibits, classrooms, and even museum operations became increasingly difficult. Administrators began lobbying for a new building, and in late 2016, having finally secured funding for the project from the Minnesota Legislature, the Bell Museum of Natural History closed its Minneapolis facility. This summer, it reopens on a five-acre site on the U’s St. Paul campus, rechristened with a shortened name.

The new building, by the Minneapolis office of Perkins+Will, is designed to tell the story of Minnesota’s natural history. “It celebrates the state’s natural resources both inside and out,” says Bell executive director Denise Young. Sustainably sourced materials from local suppliers include granite from Morton, white pine from Cass Lake (thermally treated in Palisade), bird-friendly glass from Owatonna, and multiple forms of steel produced from the Iron Range. Among the most remarkable “reused” items, notes Perkins+Will principal David Dimond, FAIA, are four giant rock cylinders woven into the museum’s outdoor exhibits. The granite cores are leftover material from Minnesota mine-drilling projects.

The new museum is expected to attract three times as many visitors as its predecessor. So, while the new Bell has plenty of room for collection storage, exhibit preparation, and staff offices, Dimond says his team put most of its efforts into maximizing the square footage for classrooms and public areas. The new building features 60 percent more public space than the old facility, including an enormous lobby that can also function as a venue for weddings, dinners, and other rental events—important sources of income for many museums. “People are looking for unique venues with some personality,” says Young.

Upon entry, visitors can access four different exhibit areas, each with a different focus: space, evolution, the future, and Minnesota’s biomes. The latter, which incorporates the museum’s dioramas, is likely to be among the most popular displays. Rather than cluster the set pieces together, the architects and exhibit designers, working with Bell staff, chose to scatter them throughout the exhibit hall, allowing for the placement of other artifacts and learning opportunities in between. Additionally, the biomes area will feature a new diorama that isn’t behind glass—a depiction of Minnesota during the Ice Age, featuring an 11-foot-tall woolly mammoth in a glacial scene.

“Nature dioramas have been a signature element of the Bell since its early days, but there are parts of Minnesota’s fascinating history that we hadn’t ever shown,” notes Young. “With [the mammoth scene in] that great cantilevered window, Perkins+Will created a view from outdoors that playfully suggests the diorama box.”

Also new to the Bell is a planetarium, which became part of the project when the Minnesota Planetarium Society merged with the Bell in 2011. (Indeed, the new museum itself may not have been possible without the two organizations joining forces.) But stars and planets aren’t the only focus of the intimate theater. Unlike traditional planetariums, the Bell’s is digitized, capable of projecting presentations on other subjects—geology, for example, or chimpanzees—onto its 16-meter aluminum dome. Its “seamless” projection surface is the first of its kind globally.

The Bell’s primary focus is education, and roughly 25,000 pre-K–12 students toured the old facility every year. The new Bell has a separate entrance for school groups, enhancing security and crowd control. “We spent a lot of time looking at the site and asking, ‘Can we get a school bus in here and turn it around? What about six of them?’” says Dimond.

Four large classrooms, including two “wet” classrooms that support physical science and field biology programs, serve these young learners. Through one classroom’s floor-to-ceiling glass, students can observe the museum’s honeybee colony (the pollinators were housed on the roof of the old facility), and kids who want to feel a beaver pelt or examine a fossil up close can do so in the Touch & See room that anchors the education wing. (Interestingly, the Bell pioneered the idea of letting patrons handle such objects in 1968, creating the first discovery room in the museum world.)

Even the building grounds enhance the Bell’s ability to tell the Minnesota story. They include a geology exploration area, solar and weather stations, and landscaping with native wildflowers, grasses, and trees. Rainwater-collection ponds on the site may one day support amphibians and other aquatic creatures.

“There are opportunities for learning everywhere,” says Dimond. “Every inch of this building works hard to support the Bell’s mission.”

Location: St. Paul, Minnesota
Client: University of Minnesota
Architect and landscape architect: Perkins+Will
Principal-in-charge: Robert Novak, AIA
Project lead designer: David Dimond, FAIA
Energy modeling: Perkins+Will; Michaud Cooley Erickson
Construction manager: McGough
Size: 89,860 square feet
Cost: $42.5 million
Completion: June 2018
Photographer: Pete Sieger