Blackbilled cuckoo from the museum's James Audubon folio

Don Luce’s Retirement: Leaving a Career and Legacy at the Heart of the Bell Museum

Published07/23/2021 , by Emily Dzieweczynski

Recognized throughout the museum world as a visionary force and man of many talents, Curator of Exhibits Don Luce has brought over 40 years of dedicated expertise to the Bell Museum. Now on his way to retirement, we’re reflecting on the legacy left behind by this extraordinary naturalist, avid birder, writer, artist, and inspiring curator. While it is undeniable that the museum will miss Don’s presence, we recognize that his hard work and years of dedication will live on in the museum for many years to come. 

Don Luce standing next to an illustration of a bird

In 1978, Don started what would be a lifelong career with the Bell. After completing a Master’s degree in Medical and Biological Illustration at the University of Michigan, he joined the Bell as an Exhibits Preparator. He heard about the job after taking a keen liking to museum work in a Museum Methods course. During this course, he created his first exhibit as his thesis project—a show on plate tectonics.

Don recalls that the Bell looked a lot different when he started. For one, the museum was still housed in the old building on Church Street, which, within the antiquated facade and dark diorama halls, was filled to the brim with collections, staff, and students. Similarly to today, it was filled with curious people who were dedicated to the environment and excited about what they were doing. The director at the time, Bud Tordoff, was adamant about having weekly “coffee hours” where everyone in the building—students, curators, researchers, and museum staff—were invited to drink coffee, share ideas, and ask questions about what each other was working on. This fostered a high level of collaboration across the museum. 

This collaboration, coupled with curious freedom and drive to take initiative, caused Don to begin exploring not only the depths of what the museum contained but also how the Bell’s exhibits could extend beyond the walls. With only one rotating gallery space in the museum, the Jaques Gallery, he began to wonder about ways to better utilize the resources. Exploration in the Bell’s collections led Don to an extensive assortment of Jaques’ work—paintings and field sketches of his expeditions and even an unpublished autobiography. Inspired by this, Don created an exhibit that took a biographical approach to Jaques’ work—weaving together artworks, quotes from his biography and environmental history. The exhibit became so popular that it traveled to many other museums, including the Smithsonian and American Museum of Natural History. 

Don Luce conducting a tour of the Jaques exhibition in 1982, the Bell Museum’s first exhibit to travel nationwide.

Don Luce conducting a tour of the Jaques exhibition in 1982, the Bell Museum’s first exhibit to travel nationwide.

A light went on and Don realized that the Bell could do much more than take exhibits from other museums. On the contrary, other museums were actually interested in what the Bell could create. Don decided to continue getting his hands dirty in exhibit curation—this time, within a peat bog! At the time, there was a group of researchers at the University of Minnesota conducting research on peat bogs in Minnesota. In order to gain a better understanding of research for his curatorial practice, Don joined the team through the nearly impossible to traverse bogs. With qualitative understanding in tote, Don developed the Bell’s first traveling exhibition to feature current research—entitled, “For Peat’s Sake.”

Panels with the text, "For Peat's Sake," part of a traveling exhibit

The exhibition, For Peat’s Sake, like many of the museum’s traveling exhibits, was designed to be shown in non-museum settings such as libraries, schools and visitor centers. Here it is on display at the State Capitol in 1984.

 

The repertoire of exhibits kept growing. Notably, Don helped curate one of the Bell’s most remembered and iconic shows, the Peregrine Falcon: Return of an Endangered Species. This show brought to light the research being done by the Bell’s director at the time, Bud Tordoff, and the Bell’s involvement in the Peregrine Recovery Project. This show was celebrated throughout the state as it substantiated the Bell’s position as an influential research institution and demonstrated how the Bell was at the forefront of this charge. 

A child looking at a peregrine falcon

Visitors at the Peregrine Falcon: Return of an Endangered Species exhibit.

 

Once the decision was made that the museum would need to move to a new building, Don became a key member of the team that reviewed architectural designs and developed plans for new permanent galleries. Additionally, he played an instrumental role in the successful and safe transportation of all the old dioramas into the new building. Among the many challenges the team faced, there was one mammoth-sized problem. The architects of the new building, Perkins & Will, were insistent on putting large, floor-to-ceiling windows on the north-facing side of the upper galleries. This created lighting problems for the gallery, but also the opportunity for a wow factor to catch the attention of passing traffic as they looked through the window, so the team started to brainstorm. Don recalls that, almost simultaneously, the team exclaimed that a woolly mammoth would be perfect for the space. The giant, open diorama of the prehistoric woolly mammoth has now become an iconic and key element of the museum today. 

Don left a lasting impact on the Bell Museum and on the museum world as a whole. He brought attention to the value and importance of art and science collaborations within the museum, developing shows that seamlessly intertwined research with the work of notable environmental artists. In that same breath, he not only prioritized research but more specifically the research being done at the University of Minnesota—tying the museum more closely to Minnesota’s natural history. He curated fearlessly, creating exhibits about topics such as evolution and endangered species at times when the topics were highly controversial. For these reasons, Don’s work helped shape the Bell’s mission and values as a museum for years to come. 

Congratulations, Don, on your highly successful, impactful, and valuable contributions to the Bell Museum. While your thoughtful conversations and curiosity will be missed, we’re thrilled for all that lies ahead for you in retirement.

Learn more about Don’s dedication to art and science and the Bell’s extensive art collection in our video series, Science Meets Art.