Renewed Bell Museum on the way to St. Paul

After pushing for renovations for almost two decades, museum employees and legislators are moving forward with building a new museum.

Nicholas Studenski

Expanded space and a new planetarium are now in the cards for the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History, thanks to the state’s recent help with setting aside funding.

The Bell Museum of Natural History is relocating to a new site on the St. Paul campus after years of pushing state legislators to fund renovations. With construction set to start next year, plans for the new facility are underway, and supporters are excited about the next museum’s features.

Some of the current building’s plumbing and electrical wiring hasn’t been replaced since its construction more than a half-century ago, and fluctuating temperatures and humidity have taken a toll on exhibits, said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who has led the push for a new museum for nearly a decade.

“There’s a really long list of things that need to be done to bring the building up to modern standards,” she said.

The state Legislature approved $51.5 million in funding for the construction project, and the University will get $3.5 million in specific increments until 2041. The state’s portion doesn’t cover the total cost of the project, but the remaining $6 million will be financed by private sources.

“We tried to make it as sure a thing as we possibly could,” said Hausman, who authored the legislation.

She said securing the funding was no easy task, given the multiple attempts since 2008.

The University’s Board of Regents plans to vote on the project’s preliminary plans at its meeting this weekend. Federal and private sources funded the creation of the plans, which cost about $5 million.

Pending the pre-design’s approval, project planners will draft detailed architectural plans over the course of about a year, said Suzanne Smith, assistant vice president of Capital Planning and Project Management.

There’s no set date for when the construction will end and the new museum will open.

Plans move forward

Bell Museum director Susan Weller said the new museum will accommodate 360 people,  which is triple the capacity of the existing building.

The museum’s current facilities don’t meet the site’s growing demand for space, she said.

And the planned St. Paul site will dedicate space for a 120-seat planetarium, Hausman said, replacing a retrofitted classroom with room for only about a dozen students. The room has served as the planetarium’s theater since the 2011 merger between the Bell Museum and the Minnesota Planetarium Society.

Field trips to the museum will also benefit from the boost in space, Weller said. In the past, school groups have had to be split up for every activity — including planetarium shows, tours and lunch — because of restricted space.

Accessibility will also improve, with plans for a designated bus loading and unloading area and handicap-accessible entrances, Weller said.

Bell’s future still growing

Eventually, classrooms at the new St. Paul museum will sprawl outdoors.

A partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will build outdoor classrooms that recreate Minnesota’s biomes, Smith said, adding that current funding only allows for those sites’ preparations.

Moving forward with constructing the outdoor classrooms will happen down the road, Weller said, and that phase of the project hasn’t received its funding.

After the museum completes its move, the existing building will face remodeling and the Goldstein Museum of Design will move in. The College of Design is also a potential future occupant of the space, said University spokesman Tim Busse.

The new facility will serve the museum’s mission of being a window into natural and extraterrestrial research at the University, Weller said.

“It’ll provide a whole new level of education,” Hausman said.