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Bell Museum changes leadership

After about six years serving as the executive director, Denise Young plans to leave the Bell Museum, with Holly Menninger stepping in as interim director.
Image by Maia Irvin
The museum celebrated its 150-year anniversary in fall 2022 with a new exhibit called “Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend.”

The Bell Museum, a unit of the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources, will be saying “goodbye” to Executive Director Denise Young on April 21 and welcoming in Holly Menninger as interim director.

Young has been the museum’s executive director since 2016. Young is leaving the Bell to become the director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The more than 150-year-old Bell Museum was previously located on the Minneapolis East Bank campus and now operates at its current location on the St. Paul campus off Larpenteur Avenue. The Bell is Minnesota’s official natural history museum, catering to a diverse age range through collections, artwork, Indigenous items and dioramas.

The Bell Museum has “touch and see” labs that involve sensory play and observation, a planetarium, nature dioramas and virtual programs, according to its website.

Welcoming Interim Director Holly Menninger

Holly Menninger will be working as the Bell Museum’s interim executive director for nine to 12 months beginning on April 22.

Holly Menninger said in an email to the Minnesota Daily that she has led the Public Engagement and Science Learning Department at the Bell and has been responsible for on-site museum experiences for the last five years.

Menninger said she will bring the knowledge she’s gained working at various public research universities and collaboration with University administration and leadership into her future work at the Bell.

“Our work involves a great deal of collaboration, coordination and creativity — and I expect to apply those skills and experience in my new role,” Menninger said.

Menninger said she is passionate about science communication, public engagement and inspiring others to become empowered by nature. She said her favorite activity is to wander through the galleries while hearing the sounds and conversations among staff and visitors.

“At its core, we’ve always been about inspiring curiosity, whether that’s through hands-on experiences in the Touch & See Lab or our world class nature wildlife dioramas representing Minnesota’s unique biodiversity,” Menninger said.

Menninger said she is excited and honored for the opportunity to lead, but recognizes it as a bittersweet moment while her “phenomenal mentor and leader” Denise Young is moving on to a new chapter.

Denise Young, signing off

Serving as executive director at the new St. Paul building that was built for the museum, Young said she describes her time at the Bell as a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” The new building opened in 2018, and Young had the opportunity to design the museum’s layout and spaces for exhibits and programs and operate through a global pandemic, experiencing shifts after the public museum closed during COVID-19.

“I remember having our astronomy educators conduct regular live programming about what’s in the sky tonight all while being able to interact in real-time with folks on Facebook Live,” Young said in the email.

Young said her biggest accomplishment was navigating the successful closing of the old museum, from moving nature dioramas and conserving artwork to repairing them in ways that allowed them to shine.

“Creating statewide outreach programs is an accomplishment that the new building won tons of different kinds of awards for, including the Best New Museum award and all kinds of sustainability awards,” Young said.

Young said she is proud of herself for identifying and nurturing an incredible staff through enabling an environment where everyone can express their expertise and excel at their work. Young said even with her title, it doesn’t mean she is a “master of all crafts” and is proud of how committed, caring and skillful the staff are.

“My message for the University community is that the Bell is an incredible resource, acting as a portal to the natural world,” Young said. “It’s an exciting place where you can explore your connection to nature and the universe, and I hope people continue to take advantage of this world class museum.”

An inside look: the Bell’s strategic plan

Young said she crafted a strategic plan to help the museum’s transition to new leadership when she officially departs. Its main objective is to plan and organize the Bell’s activities for the next several years.

The community advisory board spent six months collaborating on the plans, with more than 2,000 people participating, Young said.

“We actually interviewed and surveyed students, faculty, staff, general visitors, focus groups with teachers and scientists and community groups to understand how we can best serve Minnesota as the state’s natural history museum,” Young said.

Young said one of the plan’s primary initiatives is working on enhancing community engagement across the state, not just those who live within close proximity. She said the plan introduces the idea of having a portable planetarium that can travel to schools across the state.

The plan will also increase digitalization to promote greater access and education.

The plan and Young’s departure come as the Minnesota House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee approved a bill for the University’s biennium budget, which included about $14 million for University research entities including the Bell Museum.

“We’re developing other sorts of programming to engage people where people live, learn, work and play,” Young said. “So, they don’t have to come to the Bell to have a Bell experience, they can do that within their local communities.”


Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the location of the Bell Museum’s first location. The museum was previously located on the Minneapolis East Bank campus. 

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