Work to bring the Bell Museum to Falcon Heights begins

The more than 90,000-square-foot new Bell Museum and Planetarium set to be built at the corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues in Falcon Heights will feature a garden pond with natural plantings.

Officials from the University of Minnesota and elsewhere turned earth to break ground on the new Bell Museum April 22.

The future site of the new Bell Museum on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus, on the southwest corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues.

The 120-seat planetarium that will be installed at the new Bell Museum is being billed as the first of its kind in the U.S.

The St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota is getting its gateway building.

That’s how U of M Regent Tom Devine described the new Bell Museum and Planetarium that will be built in Falcon Heights at the corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues, comparing it to the McNamara Alumni Center in Minneapolis.

Officials from the U and elsewhere broke ground for the new $79 million natural history museum on April 22 — Earth Day — and the new building should be complete next year, with an opening date set for the late-summer of 2018.

Efforts to secure funding to build a new home for the Bell Museum, which is currently located on the Minneapolis side of the U campus at University Avenue and Church Street, go back nearly a decade.

“It really does take a village, and sometimes, years, to bring a vision like the Bell Museum and Planetarium to life,” said Lee Pfannmuller, chair of the advisory board for the Bell Museum, at a program after the groundbreaking, thanking museum staff and university president Eric Kaler, among others, for their efforts.

Pfannmuller also thanked the state Legislature, which in 2014 committed $51.5 million in bonding towards the museum and planetarium project. Some 150 more private donors brought in roughly $13 million for the project, which has a fundraising goal of $15 million more before it’s all done.

Fans of the museum’s dioramas need not worry about the move — the new, more than 90,000-square-foot building will use the dioramas in new exhibits that feature Minnesota’s various environments.

The new museum’s two floors will be split between permanent and temporary exhibits, with rotating setups on the first floor while the second floor will feature galleries that address four themes: “Why is Earth Special,” “Tree of Life,” “Web of Life” and “Imaging the future.”

New additions to the museum will include a discovery room with live insects and reptiles that visitors can touch, and the headlining, 120-seat digital-dome planetarium, which is being billed as the first of its kind in the U.S.

The museum’s current home opened in 1940 — in 1966 it was posthumously named after James Ford Bell, an important benefactor of the museum, a U of M Regent and founder of General Mills.

The new building will be a bit more environmentally friendly than the 76-year-old location. 

The project will follow Minnesota Sustainable Design standards with regards to water, energy, indoor environments, materials used and waste, aiming to reduce energy use and carbon emissions by 70 percent with the new building.

State Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who worked hard to secure funding for the museum, discussed after the groundbreaking the importance of carrying on the Bell Museum’s 144-year history. 

“Can you imagine, in 1872, people sitting in a room writing those words,” she said, referencing the Legislature’s creation of the natural history museum, “and what we have an opportunity to do today, to continue that tradition.”


Marjorie Otto contributed reporting to this story.

Mike Munzenrider can be reached at or 651-748-7813. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.

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