Bell Museum seeks new site to better serve patrons

by Tom Ford

The wooden moose and wolf standing watch outside the Bell Museum of Natural History might eventually find a new home.

For more than eight months, the Bell Museum has been preparing a pre-design plan to relocate or renovate the museum because of its limitations and distance from the St. Paul campus.

At this time, two spots in Falcon Heights, both along Cleveland Avenue North on the St. Paul campus, seem the most likely relocation sites for a more logically placed and more flexible museum, said Scott Lanyon, director of the Bell Museum.

Though less desirable, renovating and possibly expanding the current facility remains an option, Lanyon said.

The design plan, including operating costs and staffing needs, is expected to be completed this fall and will then be submitted to University administrators for approval and for the annual review of additions to its six-year capital projects plan, said Orlyn Miller, assistant department director in the Facilities Management Office.

While the review might come as early as this fall, it could be delayed until the spring, Miller said.

Even if the plan is adopted this school year, Miller said, construction or renovation of a new Bell would probably not be completed for at least four more years because the Museum plans on both private and legislative funding, which might not come until the 2004 budget year.

University greenhouses and a surface parking lot – at the corner of Cleveland Avenue North and Larpenteur Avenue, and Cleveland Avenue North and Commonwealth Avenue, respectively – currently occupy the two most likely St. Paul campus sites for a new museum.

The greenhouses were already set to be closed and moved by the University, while the parking lot is slated for building construction on the University master plan, Miller said.

Other uses for these sites, such as plans for additional recreational fields, have been proposed and will be considered along with the Bell project, Miller said.

“We fight the facility,” Lanyon said.

The Bell’s Minneapolis location and the building’s inflexibility does not allow the Museum to display its resources or highlight the research taking place at the University, Lanyon said.

A museum’s “core” is its collections, which provide the “best way to show the diversity of life” in the environment, but which now visitors cannot see, he said.

Currently, all the Bell’s approximate four million specimens of birds, fish and insects are kept and maintained on the St. Paul campus.

The St. Paul campus is also where almost all the environmental research at the University is conducted, along with the related academic departments.

The Bell, as the state’s natural history museum, has a duty to connect the public to that work, Lanyon said.

Because of both the location and rigid exhibit areas, Lanyon said, the Bell cannot display the wide variety of current and ever-changing environmental research.

“In a sense we’ve got two
museums,” he said.

As part of a “realistic, but
ambitious” vision for a new facility, early designs call for more flexible display spaces that can “react to events and relevant work” and be fairly easily switched around and changed, Lanyon said.

Exhibits could highlight research in plant genomics for a few months and then display work being done in sustainable agriculture for another period, he added.

A new St. Paul museum would likely house the Bell’s collections, which, Lanyon said, could be kept in lab areas where visitors could see -but not interfere with – the specimens and how they’re used.

Lanyon said he expects a new museum to generate 250,000 visitors each year, tripling the existing attendance.

“We could do a very good project in the existing building … but it would not come close to the vision best” for the public, Lanyon said.

Renovating the current facility would be a compromise solution, as there is little room to expand around or below the building.

“The building doesn’t serve a public museum well” but “could serve a lot of other purposes,” Lanyon said.

If the museum does move, Lanyon said, the existing building would not be torn down.

The University regards the more than 100-year-old building as a
treasure and would likely use it for another purpose – such as
classrooms, Lanyon said.

Tom Ford welcomes comments at [email protected]