A diorama is a three-dimensional model representing a scene frozen in time. The dioramas at the Bell Museum are among the best examples of museum displays that show the ecological interactions of animals and their habitats. Many of the dioramas depict Minnesota locations that can be visited today. The original purpose for these dioramas was to educate Minnesotans about their state’s natural diversity of wildlife and habitats by touring the museum. Many of the Bell Museum’s dioramas are considered among the best ever created, and are extraordinary works of art and science.
There are 16 large dioramas and more than 90 medium and small size dioramas.
Francis Lee Jaques grew up in Minnesota and eventually began to pursue his passion for painting and illustrating nature. His work has appeared in numerous books and a rich collection of dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Bell Museum. He died in 1969 and is considered one of the greatest wildlife artists and diorama artists of the 20th Century. You can learn more about Francis Lee Jaques by reading a biography of the artist-naturalist, co-authored by Bell curator Don Luce, or visit The Jaques Art Center in Aitkin, MN.
Jaques completed backgrounds on nine of the large dioramas and ten of the medium-size dioramas.
Most of the large and medium size dioramas were built in place in the 1940s and 1950s. Seven of the large dioramas were built in other buildings in the 1910s and 1920s, and then moved into this building, which opened in 1940. Several include elements such as animal mounts and plants salvaged from previous dioramas.
Quality materials and craftsmanship are vital to creating dioramas that survive the ravages of time. Museum historians might consider the architecture and the sight lines of our dioramas to be perfect. But what might not be so easy to see is the fading due to antiquated lighting and the damage to the amazingly accurate wax plant models due to wide fluctuations in temperature and humidity. The diorama halls lack modern environmental controls.
In part, the drive to build a new museum is an effort to preserve these treasures. A primary goal of the new facility is to conserve the Jaques dioramas, which are deteriorating in the present facility. Portions of the current building flood in heavy rains, putting the dioramas at risk from indirect water damage such as humidity, mildew and mold. The current building does not and cannot provide the proper environmental conditions they deserve. A climate controlled, energy efficient building with spaces designed specifically for dioramas will ensure the dioramas will survive long-term. A new museum with onsite parking, new outdoor and indoor exhibits, a planetarium and the typical amenities found at cultural attractions will result in more people viewing and loving these precious dioramas.
To save the Jaques dioramas from certain destruction from an aging building, we will move the backgrounds, restore or replace the foregrounds (many elements are beyond conservation) and add external, interactive elements that will make these treasures live again for 21st century audiences. Rehoused and restored, these dioramas will serve Minnesota for decades.
As documented in the "Diorama Dilemma: a literature review and analysis” by Marjorie Schwarzer and Mary Jo Sutton, the diorama is a unique art-form created for audiences at the turn of the 20th century. Our collective challenge is to turn today's youth and young adults into admirers and ardent advocates of the diorama art-form. If we fail to overcome this challenge, dioramas everywhere will be allowed to turn to dust.
Our board leadership and staff have embraced the audiences of the future. We have pledged all our resources to a safe and sensitive restoration and conservation of these Jaques treasures in a new facility. We will have a museum that educates and inspires all Minnesotans, which is our charter.
Our plans for relocating the dioramas are focused on preservation and restoration. When it is absolutely necessary, elements will be replaced. Numerous other museums around the world have gone through this process. Our plans are informed by their experiences. The world’s best artisans of the 1940s, 50s and 60s were involved in creating the dioramas at the Bell Museum. Thanks to funding from the Minnesota Legislature and philanthropists, a new generation of the world’s best talents will help us preserve, restore and relocate these treasures.
We are working now to determine their fate. Relocation to other sites around the state, preserving them for future display, and re-purposing elements for new displays are all possible. Just as some of our current dioramas are reconfigurations of previous displays, the new museum will have a reinterpreted set of dioramas.