Bell Museum might call Falcon Heights home

The new building will be air conditioned and big enough to house new exhibits.

Courtney Blanchard

No air conditioning, an uncharacteristic location and 80-year-old dioramas are some reasons the Bell Museum might move to Falcon Heights.

The relocation is slated to go before the Legislature in 2008. For now, University officials are planning to replace the old facility with a modern museum on the corner of Cleveland and Larpenteur avenues by 2010.

Scott Lanyon is director of the Bell Museum and a professor of ecology, evolution and behavior. He said the building houses mostly permanent exhibits, which makes it hard to highlight current University research.

“If the University’s research is always changing and the museum never does, there’s a big disconnect,” he said.

Some of the exhibits in the museum are nature dioramas from the 1920s and ’30s. Several will relocate to the new facility, including many by Francis Lee Jacques. Lanyon said they are considered to be some of the most artistic and valued dioramas in the world.

The new museum will allow for an increase in temporary and traveling exhibits. Plans also call for outdoor exhibits of prairie grass or hardwood forests, Lanyon said, adding that University classes can use the space to study wildlife habitats.

Lanyon said officials chose Falcon Heights for the new location to be closer to research and science facilities on the St. Paul campus and because it will be easier for the public to get to than the Minneapolis location.

Another problem is the lack of air conditioning in the current building, which Lanyon said can be disruptive to staff and visitors during summer educational programs.

“Unless we’re doing a summer camp for kids on the rainforest, it’s not very conducive (to learning),” he said.

Fisheries and wildlife senior Desiree Strelow has worked in the “Touch and See” room at the museum for a year.

The room is the only part of the building with air conditioning and a favorite among younger visitors, Strelow said. The staff allows visitors to interact with snakes, turtles and lizards.

Strelow said she hopes the new museum will expand the exhibit and plans to stay involved even after she graduates.

“I love working here,” she said. “It’s a family tradition.”

Orlyn Miller is the project’s coordinator in the Office of Capital Planning and Project Management. He said the planning is still in early stages, but estimates the project will cost $36 million, of which $24 million will hopefully come from the state.

The funds will be part of the 2008 bonding request to the Legislature, and the University will provide the rest of the money, some through private funds and donations, Miller said.

University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said a decision on the project’s funding will go to the Board of Regents in spring.

“The Bell Museum is an important project that will be part of the 2008 state capital request,” he said.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said in a previous interview she would support a bonding request for the new Bell Museum facility. Hausman will chair the House Capital Investment Committee when it reconvenes in January. The new museum would be built in her legislative district.

According to a Bell Museum release, Thorbeck Architects and ESG Architects will design the new museum’s 12-acre setting with Kestrel Design Group, an environmental design firm.

The news release also indicated that officials hope to open the new facility in 2010, and University Services will decide what to do with the old building.