Bell Museum to close on NYE, moves to new digs in 2018

For generations of Minnesota school kids, this has been a staple: a field trip to the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota.

But on Thursday morning, a group of first graders from Anoka, gazing at the famous wildlife dioramas and getting acquainted with a friendly bull snake,  were among the last.

On New Year’s Eve at 7 p.m., the Bell Museum will turn off the lights and lock the doors to the public for the final time. It’s moving to a new location, currently under construction on the U of M's St. Paul campus, but won’t open there until sometime in 2018.

“It is something I’ve been working on for so long,” said Don Luce, the Bell Museum's exhibit curator. “And to actually have it coming, actually happening, is kind of amazing.”

The Bell Museum dates back to the 1870s and moved to the current building, a WPA project, in 1940. The museum had already become known for its dioramas of Minnesota wildlife, but had run out of room, and there was a desire for more.

“James Ford Bell wanted a wolf diorama. And there was no more room in the building where the museum existed, so he put up half the funding to build this building," Luce explained. 

Bell was motivated to protect the state’s wolf population, which had been hunted as a nuisance animal, and desired to show them as a natural asset.

But, the current building was built specifically to house the dioramas and not constructed with a lot of flexibility for other exhibits and events. The new building will change that. It will have easier access for the school busses that routinely drop kids at the door, better parking for other visitors and a lot more space inside. It will also feature a state-of-the-art planetarium, something the state has been without for years.

Monday, Dec. 26 through Saturday, Dec. 31, the Bell Museum will stay open until 7 p.m. so visitors have time to make one last trip to the current, soon to be former, Bell Museum. On Saturday night, New Year’s Eve, the Bell will have a “light’s out” ceremony and shut its doors.  Even though it’ll be a year and a half until the new place is open, it takes a long time to dismantle the intricate displays, carefully pack them, move three miles and then painstakingly put them all back together.

“We’ve done a lot of research on this,” Luce said. “We’ve done some test moves already, and we’ve compiled this group of contractors that’s probably the world experts in doing this.”