Bell member, Nancy Steifeld works on the beaver diorama restoration, prepping the foreground pieces.

Member Perks

Taking behind-the-scenes access to a whole new level

Published07/01/2018 , by Susan Maas

Nancy Stiefeld’s love affair with the Bell Museum began seven or eight years ago, when she and a friend went to check out Sketch Night at the Bell’s former location on the University of Minnesota East Bank campus in Minneapolis.

“I had been wanting to do more of my own drawing,” says Stiefeld, a St. Paul freelance sculptor, painter, and craftsperson. “People had been telling me since I moved here [from Philadelphia], the Bell has beautiful dioramas. I checked the website and saw they have these sketch nights: one night a month where they were open late, and they’d bring out objects from the museum collection.

“We’ve been going as often as we can ever since,” Stiefeld says. She even had the chance to participate in a special overnight “Sketch-a-thon” gathering before the old Bell closed. “I brought a mat and a sleeping bag…there were only four of us, I think. It was a very small group. Everybody had a passion for being there, and for wanting to see things before they got packed up and moved.”

Those quietly inspiring evenings led her to become a Bell Museum member – and last fall and winter, she got to connect her professional life with her attachment to the Bell. Stiefeld is one of the few members who truly got full access to the museum after the Minneapolis location closed, as she was hired to work on restoration of the museum’s famous dioramas.

Steifeld works with fellow restoration artists on the Cascade River diorama.

Stiefeld works with fellow restoration artists, Terry Brown (L) and Shannon Larson (R), in the “treetops” of the Cascade River diorama. Credit: Tom Amble.

Spending day after day refurbishing exhibits she’d spent hours rendering in ink was a highlight of her career so far, Stiefeld says. From November 2017 to January 2018, she was immersed in the colorful, three-dimensional scenes of Minnesota flora and fauna created over a half-century ago by natural history museum giants Walter Breckenridge, Francis Lee Jacques, and John Jarosz.

“I worked from around 7 am until 6 o’clock in the evening,” Stiefeld says. “I’d get in in the morning, and the sun would rise between 7:30 and 8 o’clock. And I’d go to get a tool on the other side of the building and stop dead in my tracks, at the light coming in the east windows or bouncing off the mirrors. And as the day goes on and the light changes and the colors change . . . it was amazing.

“The stuff I did was all over the map,” she explains, starting with reassembling the groundforms under each display. “We cleaned plants – very carefully, with cosmetic swabs. Sometimes there was a little painting. Like the lilypads in the moose exhibit: some are wax, some are real. The real ones all went brown, so we replaced and painted those, and touched-up the wax ones as well.”

Among her longtime favorites is the Cascade River diorama. “The painting is just amazing. You feel a coolness…you feel the water rushing by you. It brings the north woods to you so well,” Stiefeld says. “And after it got moved, the way [the Midwest Art Conservation Center staff] were able to clean it and to bring the colors out! The minute I saw them I thought they looked even better than before.”

Past visitors to the Bell will be delighted by the results, Stiefeld believes. “The way they’re lit and the way the colors have been heightened, I think people will notice. They turned out beautifully; Terry Brown is brilliant. I’m really happy I was able to be part of it…it’s great knowing that another 70+ years’ worth of visitors are going to enjoy them.”



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