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Bell Museum of Natural History

Bell Museum of Natural History
The Bell Museum in 2011
Established 1872 (1872)
Location University of Minnesota
Type Natural History of Minnesota

The James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History is a museum located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on the campus of the University of Minnesota. On display are numerous animal specimens from all over the world. The museum is currently planning a move to the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus.


  • About the museum 1
  • Collections 2
  • Exhibits 3
  • Programs 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

About the museum

The museum was established by state legislative mandate in 1872 to collect, preserve, skillfully prepare, display, and interpret our state's diverse animal and plant life for scholarly research and teaching and for public appreciation, enrichment, and enjoyment. Its governance belongs, by state legislative designation, to the University of Minnesota. The Bell Museum is a portal to experiences that bring people closer to the natural world. It is a small, personable place with big ideas, an historic state treasure, and a landmark destination. It is a familiar point-of-entry to the resources of the University of Minnesota and a gateway to the natural wonders of our state. The Bell Museum serves young and old alike as they seek to find—and better understand and appreciate—their own place in a living, changing world.

People can become a member of the Bell Museum of Natural History by being a sponsor and supporter of the events and research that take place at the museum. Members receive exclusive invitations to opening receptions and private events. Members are also the first to hear about new activities, and only members receive discounts on classes, camps, and field trips. Members also receive a subscription to their seasonal magazine Imprints which serves as an update of research being done at the Bell Museum as feature articles focusing on the scientific accomplishments being made by Bell researchers. The Bell also receives donations from many independent donors and organizations to assist with any of the needs the Bell Museum may have.

The Bell Museum of Natural History is in the process of developing a larger facility to house their thousands of specimen and to aid in research. The new location and building will be on the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota and will better able to serve the many people and tour groups that visit the museum each year. Additions to be made to the museum will include an outdoor teaching facility, accessible parking and food service for visitors. The estimated cost of the new facility and moving is near $36 million. In the 2014 Legislative session, the bonding bill which including funding for the new facility was passed.[2]


Amphibian and Reptile Collection
The amphibian and reptile collection contains approximately 15,000 specimens. These collections focus on the upper Midwest and represent one of the best collections of herpetological material for this region. Among the material is an extensive series of leopard frogs collected by David Merrell in the 1960s. This collection is noteworthy due to the large number of specimens in each lot. Merrell's frogs continue to be examined by researchers interested in the history of frog malformations in the upper Midwest. The amphibian and reptile collection also contains significant collections from Mexico as well as smaller collections from south Pacific islands and southwestern United States. For its size, the collection is remarkably diverse, representing 40 families, 152 genera, and 360 species.

Bird Collection
The Bell Museum's Bird Collection currently houses approximately 46,000 catalogued specimens. Of these, the majority are standard, dried study skin preparations, although there are approximately 3,600 skeletons, 2,500 sets of eggs and 450 nests. Many of the recent specimens (> 4,000) have accompanied frozen tissue samples. Geographically, most specimens come from the upper midwest and the majority of these are from Minnesota. However, there are about 12,000 specimens from Mexico. We also have historically important collections from the Philippines resulting from the Menage expedition. In addition to this research collection, the Bell Museum maintains a dedicated teaching collection that is actively used in courses at the University.

Fish Collection
The fish collection at the Bell Museum of Natural History dates to the 19th century and contains over 45,000 cataloged lots. Most specimens are from the upper Midwest, particularly Minnesota; however, there are many older collections from outside the state. These include specimens from the Menage expedition to the Philippines in the 1890s; fish from Hawaii collected in the early 1900s; and many other specimens from across the continental United States. The fish collection also holds diverse holdings of marine fishes from the Pacific Northwest, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic coast. While most of the specimens are stored in alcohol there is: a large collection of pharyngeal teeth from cyprinids and catostomids; a sizable, uncataloged larval fish collection; and a growing collection of dry and stained-and-cleared skeletal material.

Fungi Collection
The fungal collections date from the 1880s and consist of approximately 100,000 specimens, excluding the lichens. About 10% of the specimens are of Minnesota fungi; the remainder are from North America and elsewhere. Intensive scientific investigation of Minnesota fungi occurred from about 1885 to 1910 supported by the Geological and Natural History Survey of Minnesota. Collections made between 1910 and 1960 focused on plant disease fungi. Renewed interest in documenting fleshy fungi began in the 1960s and has expanded in recent years with the increased emphasis on the analysis of biodiversity. Both the diversity and the distribution of Minnesota fleshy fungi are still very imperfectly known. The number of fungi expected to occur here is about 9000, based on the number of vascular plant species native to the state and the ratio of fungi to vascular plants for well documented parts of Europe. Thus, this database is intended as an aid to documenting the fungi of Minnesota, and not as the final word on the Minnesota fungal flora.

Lichen Collection
The Minnesota lichen herbarium dates back to the late 1800s and houses approximately 156,000 specimens. Early collections were made by Bruce Fink, the first lichenologist in Minnesota, who published “The Lichens of Minnesota” (1910) as the first lichen flora of all states. From 1970-2005 Clifford Wetmore curated the herbarium and added the bulk of specimens. Through an active program of issuing exsiccata and exchanging specimens the collection grew to its present size. Major acquisitions included the George A. Llano herbarium and library, the University of Iowa lichen collection (10,000 specimens), lichens from Arizona State University (5,000 specimens), and collections by S. K. Harris (8,000 specimens), R. Egan (10,000 specimens), and B. Shmik (5,000 specimens). Today the Minnesota lichen collection is one of the largest lichen herbaria in the US, and one of the few fully digitalized in the world. It houses collections of lichens worldwide, and a valuable set of exsiccata (approximately 18,000 specimens including many types). Its specialties include lichens of the US, particularly US protected areas (National Parks, National Forests), Minnesota, and southwest North America (Sonoran Desert Region, Baja California).

Insect Collection
Contributions to The University of Minnesota Insect Collection at UMSP began in 1879 with specimens of insects and spiders from the North Shore of Lake Superior. During the last 130 years, the Collection’s holdings have grown from a regional collection of 3,000 specimens to a major national and international resource of almost 3,600,000 specimens. In the most recent survey (based on 1986 holdings), the Collection ranked as the 8th largest university-affiliated insect collection in North America and 19th overall. Enhancing the Collection's status as an outstanding research facility are 7 resident systematists, computerized inventory management and specimen databases, a large departmental library, and a molecular systematics laboratory. Research projects associated with the Collection have broad taxonomic and geographic scope. Faculty and graduate student research focuses on both aquatic and terrestrial insect groups and includes taxonomic, phylogenetic, and applied questions. The Collection is the mainstay of graduate training in systematic entomology at the University of Minnesota.

Invertebrate Collection
The invertebrate collection at the Bell Museum of Natural History contains nearly 18,000 lots, some of which date to 1875. The majority of the specimen are freshwater mollusks collected in Minnesota, and represent an important Upper Midwest Collection. All specimens are entered into a database searchable by invertebrate collection staff. The invertebrate collection also contains the old Minneapolis Library collection of Indo-Pacific mollusks. Specimens are stored as shells or in ethanol.

A diorama in the Mammal Collection

Mammal Collection
The Bell Museum's Mammal Collection currently houses approximately 19,000 catalogued specimens. Of these, the vast majority are standard, dry skin and skull preparations, but the Bell has a reasonably large collection of full skeletons and a growing collection of fluid preserved specimens. Geographically, most specimens come from collections made in the United States and the majority of these are from Minnesota. Internationally, the collections are particularly strong in specimens from Argentina and Chile and from Mexico. The Bell Museum of Natural History also has historically important collections from the Philippines and several dozen taxidermy mounts from African bovids. In addition to this research collection, they maintain a dedicated teaching collection that is actively used by courses at the University.

Vascular Plant Collection
Vascular plant specimens number over 600,000 samples of vegetative parts, cones, fruit, and seeds. The representation of Minnesota's flora is unparalleled, with over 160,000 specimens collected throughout Minnesota's history by Etlar Nielson, Olga Lakela, John W. Moore, Welby Smith, and many others. The assemblage of historic flora of the Upper Midwest (including the Dakotas, Wisconsin, and southwestern Ontario) is among the best in the U.S. There is an excellent collection of circumboreal and arctic flora due to past research interests of E. C. Abbe, W. S. Cooper, D. Lawrence, and their students. Additionally there is an excellent collection of historic Pacific Island flora, through the efforts of J. Tilden, A. A. Heller, and J. W. Moore, and a collection of early Amazonian flora by H. H. Rusby and R. Squires as part of the early exploration (1895–1896) of the Orinoco River delta by the Orinoco Company Ltd. (of Minnesota). J. W. Congdon's collection (over 9,000 specimens) of early California plants (including Yosemite National Park) and approximately 7,000 species of early western U.S. and tropical Asia flora acquired through J. H. Sandberg's exchanges are other significant collections. Today numerous specimens have been acquired from the MN Dept. of Natural Resource's County Biological Survey and from the tropical research conducted by George Weiblen and his assistants in Papua New Guinea.


Elk diorama, set at Inspiration Peak northwest of Alexandria, Minnesota

The Bell Museum's dioramas bring nature within your reach. Two floors of dioramas display all of Minnesota's habitats, along with the birds, animals, plants and insects that populate the state. Meet moose, elk, bear, beavers, cranes, fish, and more. Learn animal facts, observe animal behavior, and find out how species survive. Constructed between 1920 and the late 1940s, the Bell Museum's dioramas illustrate what Minnesota was like before the ax and plow. Notice what has changed, and what remains the same.

Touch and See Room
The Touch and See Room came into being in 1968. Public Education Coordinator Richard Barthelemy realized that younger visitors (and, really, probably all visitors) wanted to get their hands on all the beautiful and exciting stuff that was behind glass in the spectacular dioramas the Bell has.

Bart, as he was known, started by sitting down with groups and passing around bones and furs and feathers and such and talking with them about what was there. After the new wing was built on the museum, he got the use of about half of its exhibit space for the Touch and See Room and teamed with Dr. Roger Johnson from the University of Minnesota's Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education to figure out how to make the room work at its best.

Lots of things have changed in the room since 1968, of course. Nearly everything is new since then except the basic idea of putting out wonderful things where people can explore them and get a little help when they want it. But people haven't changed much since then either. They're still lively and curious and love to explore. And they love it when what they're exploring is the real thing as it is here.

Not long after Touch and See opened, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. launched its famous discovery room. It has been said that the Touch and See Room was the only similar place they could find as a model other than children's museums.

Traveling Exhibits
The Bell Museum of Natural History develops and circulates exhibitions on a broad range of topics. With these exhibitions, the Bell seeks to instill a greater appreciation of our natural world and promote a better understanding of contemporary ecological issues. Although many of the exhibitions are designed for small-to medium-sized spaces, the Bell’s exhibits have traveled to museums of all sizes throughout the United States and Canada. Most of the exhibits require gallery installation, but several are self-supporting, lightweight, and easily assembled. These are ideal for bookings in either museum or non-museum settings, such as visitor centers, schools, and libraries.


Café Scientifique
Café Scientifique is a program designed for adults who share an interest in scientific research and gathering in pubs and coffee houses for informal discussions on relevant and often provocative scientific topics. Science Cafés and Café Scientifique events are a chance for adults to exchange opinions and ideas about science and related issues. The Bell Museum launched its own Café Scientifique program two years ago which consisted of a happy hour program for adults that brings research from the University of Minnesota and beyond into some of the Twin Cities' most unique and atmospheric bars and restaurants. The Bell Museum's Café Scientifique explores science and natural history from distinct and surprising viewpoints, drawing connections between scientific research, culture, environment and everyday life. The Bell Museum's Café Scientifique features guests from a variety of fields with diverse and relevant expertise. Past events have included scientific researchers, policy experts, bioethicists, community leaders, cultural historians, artists, and authors for dynamic discussions that bridge the gap between science and culture.

Film at the Bell Museum
The Bell Museum continues its tradition of exhibiting science and nature films with a series of programs that explore research and the natural world through the lens of a movie camera. Film programs at Bell Museum take viewers around the world and to their own backyards for timely and compelling stories of exploration, scientific discovery, and human connection with landscapes and environments.


  1. ^ March 1, 1872 the Minnesota legislature
  2. ^

External links

  • Bell Museum Homepage
  • College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences Homepage

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