New Bell Museum: A tale of tenacity

Rep. Alice Hausman was understandably upbeat after the 2014 session of the Minnesota Legislature. After a 10-year struggle, funding for a new Bell Museum of Natural History—and planetarium—was finally secured.

“There’s a sense of enormous relief and such joy,” Hausman, DFL- St. Paul, said in the days following Gov. Mark Dayton’s signing of the bill. “This going to be a legacy for generations of Minnesotans to come.”

Groundbreaking for the $57.5 million facility on the southwest corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues is tentatively scheduled for spring 2015. The museum is part of the University of Minnesota.

When the recent legislative session convened, Bell supporters knew they were facing a make-or- break situation. The 2008 and 2009 legislatures passed a $24 million proposal for a new museum, only to have it undone by Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoes.

At that point, the University dropped the project from its list of priorities. More frustration followed in 2013, when Hausman included the museum in a bonding bill that failed to pass.

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Now the 2014 session would be her last as the influential chair of the House Capital Investment Committee. Despite a self- acknowledged stubborn streak, she let it be known that she saw this as the project’s last chance.

The planetarium, once a fixture at the old Minneapolis Central Library, was now part of the Bell proposal. It was left homeless after the library was razed a decade ago and the Minnesota Planetarium Society transferred its assets to the Bell in 2011.

The University’s position, as articulated by its president, Eric Kaler, was that it would support the Bell funding only if it did not divert money from projects endorsed by the Board of Regents. Museum staff members were instructed not to work on behalf of a new facility.

That left it up to the Bell’s advisory board to spearhead the effort, according to board vice-chair Lee Pfannmuller. “All of the board members got deeply involved, as did the museum membership. People all over the state were contacting their elected officials,” she said.

Hausman said it also helped that high-profile supporters such as Dennis Anderson, outdoor writer for the Star-Tribune; meteorologist Paul Douglas; and climatologist Mark Seeley publicly backed the project.

In the end, Hausman and Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, the chief Senate author, were successful in gaining approval for the new facility, which will lie in both of their legislative districts. But it took some creativity to get it financed. It was finally agreed that the university would sell $51.5 million in bonds to fund the project, with the Legislature providing the money to cover the debt service. Another $6 million is to be raised privately.

“I am grateful for the steadfast leadership provided by Rep. Alice Hausman, who has championed the project for over a decade,” said Susan Weller, Bell executive director, in a letter to supporters. “This positive outcome speaks volumes about her outstanding integrity and vision of Minnesota’s future science, technology, engineering and math- related workforce.”

Added Pfannmuller, “A lot of people worked hard on this, but what really made the difference was Alice. We wouldn’t be anywhere without her.”

Room to grow in Falcon Heights

The plot of land that the new Bell Museum of Natural History and Planetarium will occupy has a historical connection with the education of young people. From 1873 to 1959, it was the location of the Gibbs School, established by pioneer Heman Gibbs across the road from his farmhouse.

Initially, the museum and planetarium will occupy about 7 acres of the 12-acre site, with the rest set aside for what is hoped will one day be outdoor classrooms.

In its current location on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank, the Bell Museum’s educational programs serve nearly 60,000 children and families a year, but officials say the new facility will accommodate many more.

And there will be a lot more exhibit space.

“When the Legislature approved the funding in 2008 and 2009, the plan was that Audubon and the Art of Birds would be the opening exhibit at the new Bell,” recounts Don Luce, curator of exhibits.

With the gubernatorial vetoes, Luce and colleagues decided to go ahead and display the Audubon exhibit on a smaller scale, from October 2013 to June 2014. It turned out to be one of the most popular shows in the Bell’s history.

“Not only will the new building give us an opportunity to show our existing collections to good advantage, having 2,000 more square feet of exhibit space will allow us to stage a lot of shows that the Bell has not previously been able to accept,” Luce said.

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