The first day I visited the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History on Church St. on the East Bank of the University of Minnesota campus was in the fall of 2009. I was a graduate student who was eager to complete a master’s degree with a minor in Museum Studies. I was at the Bell that day to attend the first session of Museum History and Philosophy, which was held in the conference room adjacent to the Touch and See Room.
The course, taught by then head of the Museum Studies program and curator at the Bell, Gordon Murdock, was the introductory course in the program. We learned core principles in museum theory and discussed the importance of the context in which objects were displayed. We were introduced to storage facilities and the exhibit floors of multiple museums throughout the Twin Cities.
Each time on my way to class, I stopped in front of a diorama and peered through the glass to try to pick out a new detail in the foreground or background. Little did I know that in those moments, the dioramas, and the history of the Bell Museum would be part of my future.
The University of Minnesota Archives received a Legacy grant in 2013 to digitize records related to the Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey. The survey was established in 1872 with an act of the state legislature to study and preserve the flora and fauna of Minnesota and establish a museum of natural history. I was fortunate to be hired as the Project Archivist for the grant titled, “Exploring Minnesota’s Natural History.”
In addition to digitizing the survey records, we digitized the records of the departments of Geology, Botany, Zoology, and the Bell Museum, all entities created at the University as a result of the survey.
A large portion of the Bell collection included 6,000+ glass-plate and film negatives that former museum directors Thomas Sadler Roberts and Walter Breckenridge created throughout their careers. After the negatives were scanned, I transcribed the captions written on the outside of the envelopes that encased them. This included recording captions, genus and species names, locations, dates, photographic notes, and geographic place names.
In order to understand the materials that were digitized, I did a lot of research. I read and transcribed Roberts’ incoming and outgoing correspondence during his tenure as State Ornithologist of the Zoological Survey and director of the Zoological Museum (the Bell’s previous name). As I created metadata for the negatives, and read through the archival correspondence, I began to realize that many of the images were used as research to create the dioramas. I also read books about taxidermy to understand the process and history of the art form.
In 2015, I curated an exhibit about the Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey at Andersen Library. The Bell Museum kindly loaned us the press used to make the wax leaves for the foreground displays in the dioramas, as well as a miniature display of the wolf diorama, and a few of the museum’s traveling exhibits that were originally displayed in local schools.
Part of the exhibit highlighted the creation of the beaver diorama, which captures a scene on Elk Lake in Itasca State Park in 1917. The wax press and a reproduction of the landscape study painting background artist Charles Abel Corwin produced at the site served as a backdrop to the archival records that documented the creation of the diorama. The glass-plate negatives visually illustrated the process: beaver dams at Itasca; preparator Jenness Richardson holding a beaver specimen; a model created for a hide to be assembled upon; wax leaves and flowers created to complete the foreground display.
Fast-forward to 2017, when I had since become Collections Archivist at University Archives. Bell staff contacted us in anticipation of the move to the new facility on the St. Paul campus. Multiple afternoons were spent with Bell staff packing up the museum records held there. University Archives accessioned 224 boxes (approximately 316 cubic feet) by January 2018, just before Bell staff had to vacate the Church St. building and move to the new facility in St. Paul.
I have great nostalgia for the museum building on Church St. It’s where I received part of my education, and where I visited to research in order to preserve and create access to the records of the Bell Museum at the Archives.
At the end of June, I was invited to a preview of the new Bell Museum facility on Larpenteur Ave. in St. Paul. When I entered the building that day… I was speechless.
The lobby, the new Touch and See room, the education classrooms, the Planetarium show, and the exhibits were all so impressive, what could I say?
I will say that when I first saw the beaver diorama… tears came to my eyes. I know a few things about how it was first constructed, and to see that diorama so pristine in a new place took my breath away.
In the 1916-1917 annual report submitted to the President of the University, museum director Thomas Sadler Roberts stated his intent to direct the museum in the spirit of the original 1872 Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey bill,
“The Survey Bill… specifically directed that a Natural History Museum be established… the wisdom and foresight displayed in the drafting of this bill is made the more apparent by reason of the growing recognition of the indispensable part that modern museums of all kinds play in the formal education and the enlightenment of the people…”
The modern Bell Museum will play an indispensable part in the formal education and the enlightenment of the people of Minnesota and beyond. After my visit, I signed up for a membership. My first introduction to this museum was as a student. Fortuitously, the Bell continued my museum studies as an archivist. I’m excited to further my education as a member and visitor for many more years to come.
The Bell Museum is holding an opening weekend July 13-15.
—Rebecca Toov is the collections archivist for the University of Minnesota Archives.