A Natural Curiosity

The Story of the Bell Museum


Lansing Shepard, Don Luce, Barbara Coffin, and Gwen Schagrin

A richly illustrated tour of Minnesota’s premier natural history museum after 150 years

Since its humble start in 1872 as a one-room cabinet of curiosities, the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of natural history has become one of the state’s most important cultural institutions. Drawing on a wealth of materials unearthed during the museum’s recent move, this gorgeously illustrated book chronicles the remarkable discoveries and personalities that have made the Bell Museum what it is today.

From its humble start in 1872 as a one-room cabinet of curiosities, the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of natural history has grown to be one of the state’s most important cultural institutions. Within its walls are displayed the natural wonders of Minnesota and the world beyond, a standing invitation to explore, understand, and appreciate our natural environment—and, for visitors of all ages, both seasoned observers and curious onlookers, to experience the delight of discovery. A Natural Curiosity is a tale well told, a lively ride across 150 years of important scientific advancement.

Drawing on a wealth of materials unearthed during the museum’s recent move to its new building, this gorgeously illustrated book chronicles the remarkable discoveries, moments, and personalities that have made the Bell Museum what it is today. Among the stories of ornithologists, botanists, tycoons, and conservationists, readers will encounter the magnificent dioramas created by renowned artist Francis Lee Jaques, the adventures behind some of the Bell’s more curious specimens (like the bones of Philippine orangutans and moonrats, a high-flying moose, and a simple fungi sample that saved a man’s life), and the dramatic accounts of the critical advances made by the museum in wildlife telemetry, conservation biology, and scientific learning—all in defense of our planet’s threatened biodiversity. In a photographic finale, readers will be treated to a tour of the new, reimagined museum, complete with the planetarium that inspired one Minnesota boy to become a NASA astronaut.

From its conception as part of a state-mandated geological and natural history survey, to its most recent ventures into technology, environmental science, and DNA sequencing, the Bell Museum has informed, explained, and expanded our relationship to the natural world. Its story, engagingly told in A Natural Curiosity, reveals and explores the profound changes undergone by society, science, and the natural landscape over the museum’s lifetime.

Lansing Shepard is a writer who specializes in conservation, environmental policy, and natural history. He is coauthor of This Perennial Land: Third Crops, Blue Earth, and the Road to a Restorative Agriculture and author of the Northern Plains volume of The Smithsonian Guides to Natural America series. He has written for the Bell Museum’s IMPRINT publication, contributed to exhibition scripts, and coauthored the television documentary Minnesota: A History of the Land.

Don Luce is Bell Museum Curator of Exhibits. For more than forty years he has curated most of the museum’s temporary exhibitions, including Exploring Evolution, The Lion’s Mane, Wildlife Art in America, and Audubon and the Art of Birds. He initiated the Bell’s traveling exhibitions program, developed and expanded its natural history art collection, and played a key role in the conception and design of the new museum’s permanent exhibit gallery, Minnesota Journeys.

Barbara Coffin has promoted the conservation and understanding of Minnesota’s natural world throughout her career. She is the former head of media productions and adult programs at the Bell Museum and played an important role in the design of the new museum’s exhibit galleries. She is executive producer of the Emmy Award–winning television documentary Minnesota: A History of the Land and coeditor of Minnesota’s Endangered Flora and Fauna (Minnesota, 1988).

Gwen Schagrin has worked in exhibits research, design, and production at the Bell Museum since 1992, contributing to the museum’s Wildlife Art in America publication and the preservation and management of its wildlife art collection. She served as special exhibitions assistant curator for Audubon and the Art of Birds and was a coauthor of its exhibition guidebook.



Ford W. Bell


Bell Museum Timeline

1. A Museum is Born, 1872–1940

Documenting Minnesota: The Geological and Natural History Survey

The Menage Expedition: How Orangutan Bones Landed in the Bell Museum Collections

Josephine Tilden: Paving the Way for Women in Science

T. S. Roberts: Naturalist, Doctor, Director

Making a Museum for the Public: The Early Dioramas

2. Growing an Institution, 1920s–1950s

The Many Talents of Walter Breckenridge

Early Public Education: Reaching “the whole people . . .”

James Ford Bell: The Man Behind the Name

Heyday of the Dioramas: Windows into Nature

Taking Flight: The Artistic Journey of Francis Lee Jaques

3. Wildlife Explorations, 1940s–1980s

At the Poles: Arctic and Antarctic Research

The Bride Wore . . . Boots?

Migrations: The Life and Times of Dwain Warner

Tracking Nature: The Rise of Wildlife Telemetry

Mystery of the Missing Toads

4. The Museum in the Environmental Era, 1960s–1990s

Touch and See: Pioneering Hands-On Learning

Public Programs: From Education to Engagement

Interpreting Nature: The Student Guide Program

From Student Guide to College Professor

Making Movies: Reaching a Bigger Audience

Honeybees on the Roof: Sweetening Science Education

Widening the Inquiry: Bringing together Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior

Nature vs Nurture: Frank McKinney and the Evolution of Animal Behavior

Minnesota’s Rarest: Naming the State’s Endangered Flora and Fauna

Flight of the Peregrine: Bud Tordoff and the Return of an Endangered Species

Art and Natural History: The Evolution of a Legacy

Science through the Lens of Art: Resident Artists at the Bell

Change Comes to the “Eternal” Museum: Temporary and Traveling Exhibits

5. Rediscovering the Collections, 1980s–2022

Collections offer Clues to Environmental Challenges

A Botanical Treasure: The University of Minnesota Herbarium

The DNA Revolution Comes to the Bell Museum

Re-thinking the Tree of Life

Bell Museum Scientists on the Global Stage

Biodiversity Research: Understanding Life’s Threatened Diversity

100 Years Later: Minnesota Updates its Natural History Survey

Collections Go Online

6. A Museum for the Twenty-first Century, 1990s–2022

Saving an Endangered Museum: Surviving and Thriving in a University Setting

From the Earth to the Cosmos: The Journey of Minnesota’s Planetarium

The Ride of His Life

The Road to a Re-Imagined Museum

Designing with Nature: The Bell Museum’s New Home

Moving Minnesota: Dioramas in a New Habitat

The Experience: A Journey through Time


Denise Young



The Bell Dioramas

Select Exhibitions at the Bell Museum

Publications of the Bell Museum

Select References



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