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Inside the Outdoors: A museum can teach humility as well as biology

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

Image from the "Bugs Outside the Box" collection.
Photo copyright 2021 Joe Szurszewski, Courtesy of the Bell Museum and University of Minnesota.

There is much that can be learned in a museum. This is especially true if its theme and subjects align with your interests. Sometimes, though, a person discovers that what they thought was of little interest, can actually prove fascinating. For me, visiting the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, was not on my bucket list. But it turned out to be full of nostalgia to see up close the artifacts and memorabilia of the musicians who wrote, sang and played the soundtracks of my youth. My wife spent a career as an art teacher, while I, on the other hand, can barely draw a stick figure. Yet in art museums I have found myself marveling at what a sculptor could chisel out of a block of marble, what a painter could convey with a brush and canvas, and how ancient cultures expressed their views of life and the world through their art.

Other museums would be slam-dunk favorites. For an outdoors person like me, steeped in a life of angling, hunting and fascinated by science and nature, a visit to a natural history museum can be like an expedition to places either familiar or exotic, and a time machine that can take one to other epochs in the history of our planet, revealing their many and marvelous natural processes and life forms.

I recently visited the new Bell Museum on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus. “New” may be a misnomer, and so—in a way—is its current name. The museum’s St. Paul campus home opened in 2018, but its life began decades ago as the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History, at that time located across town on the University’s Minneapolis Campus.

Its namesake, James Ford Bell, was a passionate conservationist who was the founder of the cereal and grain processing giant General Mills, and who donated half of the funds needed to construct the Minneapolis campus building, which opened in 1940. Fast-forward to the 21st century, when—faced with an aging and maintenance-heavy structure, and a desire by museum leadership to broaden the subjects presented—a major fund-raising campaign led to the museum’s new home and name in 2018.

In its first life, and now in the museum’s new location, the museum features scenes of Minnesota’s many varied landscapes, and their many wild creatures and plant life. These landscapes are depicted in dioramas that combine painted backgrounds, taxidermy specimens of creatures as small as chipmunks and as large as bull moose, and landforms and vegetation made of castings, wax and other materials that look truly alive. These dioramas were mostly created during the 1930’s for the museum building that opened in 1940, the work of acclaimed artist Francis Lee Jacques, in collaboration with artist and diorama maker—and longtime museum director—Dr. Walter Breckenridge.


As a student at “the U,” more decades ago than I care to admit, I often visited that original museum during midday breaks between classes. So realistic and detailed are its dioramas—then and now—that you could sit on the built-in benches opposite them and easily imagine that you were on the shore of Lake Superior, or on the edge of a beaver pond, or out on the western Minnesota prairie. What a great temporary escape these dioramas were from the milling crowds of fellow students, the pressures of professors’ expectations and the cares of everyday life.

A highlight of the new museum is a life-size reconstruction of the now-extinct wooly mammoth. This elephant-like, elephant-size mammal, cloaked with a dense protective fur layer and armed with enormous curving tusks, roamed the northern regions of North America—including Minnesota—Europe and Asia until about 10,000 years ago.

Pleistocene Minnesota Diorama.
Photo courtesy of the Bell Museum and University of Minnesota.

Like the first humans to arrive in North America, the wooly mammoth is believed to have migrated here over the Bering Land Bridge, the land connection that temporarily joined North America and Russia when ocean levels were much lower during the last ice age.

Small remnant populations clung to existence as late as 4,000 years ago, in such isolated locations as Russia’s Wrangel Island, and mainland Siberia. That’s little more than the blink of an eye in the history of life on our planet. The wooly mammoth’s extinction is thought to have been caused by some combination of warming climate, and the growing presence and effectiveness of human hunting of the huge beasts for food.

Modern humans have had an unusual window into the nature of the wooly mammoth, much more revealing than what we know of many other long-extinct creatures. We not only have fossils dating back many thousands of years, but also deep-frozen specimens that have been found in several far northern locations, locked in perpetual ice for these millennia. Still more unusual, one wooly mammoth specimen found in Poland was mummified in a liquid petroleum seep.

Young Bell Museum guests explore the Woolly Mammoth.
Photo courtesy of the Bell Museum and University of Minnesota.

I’m humbled when I visit places like the Bell Museum. Humbled when I consider the long sweep of life on our planet, the diversity of creatures that exist not only now, but that preceded our own kind in millennia past; some that were never seen by our human ancestors before they passed into history.

Humans and our ancestors have existed for but a tiny fraction of the history of life on earth. Our species, Homo sapiens, is less than 200,000 years old, while the first mammals appeared 225 million years ago. As legitimate as it is for us to rely on other creatures to make our lives possible—to feed us, clothe us, or pull a plow to turn the soil for our agrarian forebears—other creatures are important in their own right; not just for their value and usefulness to us.

Mike Rahn - Inside the Outdoors.jpg
Mike Rahn, columnist

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