swan diorama

Diorama Spotlight: Tundra Swans at the Minnesota River Valley

Published07/29/2020 , by Adam Hartman, gallery programs assistant

Long Meadow Lake sits just south of Fort Snelling, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers in the Minnesota River Valley. The expansive wetland habitat created by the surrounding rivers is ideal for waterfowl populations, especially during spring migration when tens to hundreds of thousands of birds pass through Minnesota.

Tundra swans are one of the many waterfowl species that make the spring trek across North America to their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic. Unlike other migratory bird dioramas at the Bell Museum which showcase hundreds of birds (both painted and posed) such as Cranes in the Red River Valley and Snow Geese at Lake Traverse, Tundra Swans at the Minnesota River Valley spotlights a small group of tundra swans. Swans tend to travel in tight family groups instead of flocks thousands strong, so their migration isn’t as spectacular in scale as geese or cranes. However, the intimate personality of this small group of swans makes this scene unique from other bird dioramas. 

This diorama, created by Francis Lee Jaques and John Jarosz, depicts Long Meadow Lake as it was in the 1940s. At that time, much of the land surrounding the lake was active farmland, though the tree-covered hillside on the diorama’s left side (the northern bank) hides a small building, the Long Meadow Gun Club, overlooking the lake.  In the 1940s, runoff from fields contaminated the surrounding waterways with excess sediment and nutrients, threatening the survival of not only aquatic species, but also migratory bird species like the tundra swan—an unfortunate consequence of development that continues today. Since this diorama’s completion in 1948, the land surrounding the lake has been developed substantially. Today, the northern bank of Long Meadow Lake is home to  both the Mall of America and the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport.

Even though this diorama was created over 70 years ago, the species it presents still pass through the Minnesota River Valley every year. Swans feed in the distant water, dipping forward to pull submerged vegetation from the lake bed with their long necks. Several duck species fill the muddy shoreline. Mallards, shovelers, and pintails rest on land, while ruddy ducks, scaups, redheads, and canvasbacks swim in deeper waters. Two killdeer and a snipe scan the mud for buried invertebrates. All of these species are still found in Minnesota. Some of them nest here, but others continue further north with the tundra swans.

Despite the continued development of the surrounding areas, Long Meadow Lake and parts of the Minnesota River Valley are protected in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. This area contains important wetland habitat that supports a great diversity of plant and animal species, and because of its size and quality, continues to attract huge numbers of migrating waterfowl, making it a popular spot for birdwatchers and naturalists.

Location: Long Meadow Lake, Bloomington, Hennepin County—just up the Minnesota River from Fort Snelling

Date depicted: 1940s

Date completed: 1948 (painted in 1947)

Dimensions: 10’ x 20’

Background Artist: Francis Lee Jaques

Foreground Artist: John Jarosz

Season: Early Spring

Donors: Founding Donors – A group of friends in honor of Thomas Sadler Roberts (names of individuals listed in 1940s Museum Guidebook); Donors of 2018 Restoration – Diorama Legacy Society

Restoration 2017: Midwest Art Conservation Center, Chase Studios, Museum Professionals, Split Rock Studios