Remember the green grass? Or the colorful dash of prairie flowers, sounds of lapping blue waves, birds chirping in the distance? Yes, we really will have summer again. But if you’re missing it now, I have the perfect solution for you — a trip to the Bell Museum of Natural History. Located in Dinkytown, this gem of a museum not only provides relief from winter’s vast whiteness but contains some of the greatest and most colorful art in Minnesota.
Museum dioramas came into being in the early 20th century. Before then, natural history museums were filled with cabinets of collections. Dioramas put museumgoers right into the scene. Dioramas were meant to transport a viewer to another habitat. Time is stopped, wild animals are frozen in place, and you become a fearless explorer on the vast horizon. The Bell Museum’s dioramas are some of the finest in the country and depict Minnesota’s diverse landscapes from Pipestone’s prairie to Lake Superior’s north shore. Standing in front of them you become one with the environment. If you like hiking, camping, or simply stopping at scenic reststops, this place will be a great escape.
Dioramas consist of three parts: taxidermy mounts, botanical reproductions, and painted backgrounds. Together, those elements create a complete enviromnent. One of the country’s most prolific background painters is our own — Francis Lee Jaques (pronounced Jay-quees). Born in 1887 and raised in a log cabin in northern Minnesota, Jaques spent his youth drawing and painting the landscapes and animals around him. From 1924 to 1942 he worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City where he painted diorama backgrounds and traveled the world to make sketches and gather specimens. More then half the dioramas in that museum were painted by him. In 1953 he moved back to Minnesota with his wife, Florence Page Jaques, a writer who also loved the outdoors. Together they wrote and illustrated the now-collectible “Snowshoe Country” along with several other books that are on any Minnesota enthusiast’s bookshelf.
As soon as you step inside the Bell Museum and you know right away you’re in a special place. Two floors of exhibit halls are covered in dark stained wood panels. Dim coved ceiling light casts a moody ominous glow. This is not a high-tech, buzzing science museum. This is a natural history museum like they don’t make anymore. The first thing you notice is the taxidermy mounts. Then you notice the rocks or the twigs or the little flowers. Or the bird in a branch. Or is the bird painted on a branch? You can’t tell where the three dimensional objects end and the paintings begin. Jaques was a master of perspective. He painted nine of the large, curving dioramas (more than 20 feet wide) and several of the smaller ones in the side halls.
Know of any underappreciated tourist spots in your neighborhood? Write to WeekendTourist@mnpubs.com. For a museum map and checklist of Jaques’ Bell Museum dioramas write to WeekendTourist@mnpubs.com.
Annie’s Parlor in nearby Dinkytown serves old-fashioned burgers and malts (313 14th Ave. SE).