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Bell Museum's new home, amenities promise a grand opening weekend

Design & Production's Branden Coates, left, digs for his flashlight to help Michael Kennedy locate and remove foreign dust particles they saw inside a vitrine (exhibit case) at the Bell Museum in Falcon Heights on Friday, July 6. Coates is foreman for installation and Kennedy is site supervisor at Design & Production. Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press1 / 3
Branden Coates, installation foreman for Design & Production (the company hired to install the exhibits) walks around exhibits and does final fix-ups at the Bell Museum in Falcon Heights on Friday, July 6. Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press2 / 3
A board listing donors to the Bell Museum takes shapes in the lobby of the new facility last week. The $79.2 million building on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus was paid for with $51.5 million in state bonding funds, $6.7 million from the university and the remainder from private gifts. Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press3 / 3

ST. PAUL—There will be stars, there will be scientists, there will be sketching: The Bell Museum's grand opening is this weekend.

The mammoth-sized lineup includes a ticketed party Friday night, July 13, followed by indoor and outdoor activities Saturday and scientists at play Sunday. Some of the highlights will include specimen sketching, planetarium previews, telescope observing, science demos, make-your-own mini-dioramas and water-rocket launching.

"We want it to be a big 'Welcome to the Bell,' " said Adrienne Wiseman, director of marketing and business and organizer of this weekend's festivities. "This is a big moment for us. We are working hard to create really memorable activities. Because it's not just about the Bell opening, we really want people to participate in activities that reflect the Bell's combination of art and science."

This will be the natural history museum's east-metro debut. Since its founding by legislative mandate in 1872, it has always been part of the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota. However, the museum's organizational home — the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) — is located on the St. Paul campus, and that's where the new museum is located. The grand opening is taking place two years, two months and 21 days after the groundbreaking on Earth Day 2016.

The new museum comes with a $79.2 million price tag — $51.5 million from state bonding, $6.7 million from the University of Minnesota and the remainder from private gifts.

It also has a new feature and, thus, an expanded mission: the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium, which has 120 seats, a seamless dome and a digital format. Minnesota hasn't had such a large, public planetarium — thought to be the largest planetarium between Chicago and the West Coast — since the planetarium at the Central Library in Minneapolis closed in 2002. To celebrate, the Bell will premiere this planetarium's first original production, "Minnesota in the Cosmos," which tells the geological story of Minnesota.

The new museum also has a new name: The James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History will now be known as the Bell Museum — streamlined but still honoring the late founder of General Mills, an early conservationist and the driving force behind the growth and development of the museum (and Minnesota) in the 20th century. Bell was also a force behind the museum's most famous masterpieces, the vintage wildlife dioramas that were moved, restored and re-interpreted for the new location. In homage to those iconic boxes, and in celebration of how the Bell unites the arts and science, museum-goers will be able to make their own mini masterpieces this weekend.

"Literally all ages get excited about this activity," Wiseman said. "We will have these little boxes, little animals and little supplies like straws that look like birch trees, as well as different backdrops. So you pick your stuff and then go sit down and assemble it. At other preview events, it's been fun to see what people create — some choose to do realistic scenes, like a deer against a Minnesota backdrop, and others go for fanciful, otherworldly interpretations, like a mammoth against a Van Gogh 'Starry Night' sky."

Science can be fun, too, as one graduate student plans to show museum-goers on "Science Sunday."

"We'll demonstrate how certain snake venoms work," said evolutionary biologist and doctoral candidate Danielle Drabeck.

Of course, it's not like the kids will handling real snake venom.

"There are a few regulations involved with that," Drabeck said with a laugh.

Instead, Drabeck will use a kid-friendly concoction to illustrate how the venom of certain vipers can cause our blood to clot.

"Gak," she said.

It's a fun party favor. "They'll be able to take home their own little blood clot," said Drabeck. "It's neat."

Drabeck also said that it's neat that the Bell serves as a bridge between the people of Minnesota and the scientists at the University of Minnesota, as reflected in the Bell's research, collections and exhibits (Drabeck's adviser is Sharon Jansa, a professor who is the Bell's curator of mammals).

"There are so many amazing opportunities for outreach when you have a museum as a venue," Drabeck said. "It's also a way for kids to see what scientists look like now, as opposed to pictures in a book of famous dudes from the 17th or 18th century."

In addition to the special activities, the regular features of the new museum will be open and on display, including the new woolly mammoth diorama (and the classic dioramas); the Touch & See Lab, where you can check out the new Collections Cove, which highlights an extensive collection of more than 4,000 specimens; the planetarium; and fans of famed Minnesota photographer and filmmaker Jim Brandenburg can watch a documentary he created for the Bell, "Jim Brandenburg's Minnesota," which will play inside the glacier theater.

If you go

What: The grand opening of the Bell Museum.

When: Friday-Sunday, July 13-15

Where: The new Bell Museum is located on the corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues, at 2088 Larpenteur Ave. on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus.

The schedule: A ticketed party Friday night; extended hours (and free outdoor activities) Saturday; Science Sunday.

Friday: A ticketed, after-hours party from 6 to 11 p.m. will feature music by St. Paul singer/songwriter Ashley DuBose, DIY art and sketching, planetarium previews, telescope observing, refreshments, food trucks and more. Tickets are $40 ($32 for members).

Saturday: The museum is open for extended hours during "Inside & Out" on Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (with free outdoor activities from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.). Inside, there will be nature sketching programs, science demos and hands-on activities and make-your-own diorama stations. Regular admission (prices vary; purchasing advanced tickets is strongly encouraged).

Sunday: The museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for "Science Sunday," which will include the chance to meet some of the Bell Museum curators and other researchers and scientists in addition to other activities, stations and previews. Regular admission (prices vary; purchasing advanced tickets is strongly encouraged).

Info/tickets: Get more information and purchase tickets at or call 612-626-9660 to purchase tickets over the phone from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Museum admission: $12 for adults; $9 for youths (3-21); $10 for seniors; free for members and University of Minnesota students. Planetarium only: $8 for adults, $6 for youths, $7 for seniors, $4 for University of Minnesota students and half off for members. Combo admission is $17 for adults, $12 for youths, $14 for seniors. Memberships are $55 for individuals and start at $95 for households. Discounted passes and memberships available for those who qualify.