BELL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
Whether your kids enjoy geology, astronomy, biology or insectology (I made that one up), there is definitely something for them at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History. Located directly in the heart of the campus, this museum is great for all ages – but young kids can really fill a morning – doing experiments, looking at the animal exhibits, watching a program in the ExploraDome, and being 100% hands-on in the Touch & See room. It is a place where holding cockroaches, studying snake skin and wearing deer antlers is not uncommon at all. In fact, as my kids say, “It’s super awesome! And a little gross.” But, awesome or gross, it sure is educational, and what parent is going to complain about that?
What is it?
The Bell Museum was founded in 1872 with the hopes of igniting curiosity and wonder, exploring our connections to nature and the universe, and create a better future for our evolving world. A museum created specifically for the minds of tomorrow seemed to be the perfect solution to meet these mission goals. With multiple exhibits, including the kid-popular Touch & See room and freakishly realistic animal dioramas, visitors can learn about a variety of specimen, including mammals, insects, birds, fish and plants. There is always a special exhibit going on (right now through May, 2016, you can get a glimpse at global food in the Hungry Planet exhibit) and don’t miss out on Saturday with a Scientist where kids are taught by U of M researchers through hands-on activities. Then of course, pick up your tickets to the ExploraDome, a tiny planetarium where you lie on your back and watch a mini-movie above you about our solar system.
Come 2018, you can visit a brand new and improved Bell Museum located on the St. Paul campus. The bigger and better building will feature a 120-seat digital planetarium (a vast improvement over the current one) and many more hands-on activities and exhibits relating to natural history. Should be pretty darn amazing!
Fit for what ages?
If I had to put an age on it, I’d say 5-12 but I think any age could enjoy certain aspects of this museum – all really depends on their interest level. If you have a kid who prefers running, climbing and sliding, maybe this isn’t the best place for them, but if they are hands-on and have an interest in the environment or how things work, they should enjoy the full museum. The ExploraDome requires a level of patience that my kids just didn’t have. Each show is 45 minutes long and is narrated by a student staffer, so depending on their interest in astronomy, play this one out carefully. We had to leave after 20 minutes both times we went because my kids are wired like their mother, sighing loudly because it wasn’t action-packed enough to keep their attention. No, it’s not like an episode of RescueBots – it’s an educational, highly intellectual visual narrative about our planets. If that won’t float your kids’ boat, don’t spend the money and stick to the Touch & See discovery room instead. Toddlers who toss and break stuff as a hobby could wreak havoc in the discovery room since many items are delicate (skulls, snake skins, lava rocks, etc.), so do make sure your children are old enough to be respectful of their surroundings. And keep an eye on them, per usual.
How much are we talkin?\
Admission to the just the museum (which includes all exhibits, dioramas and the discovery room) is $8/adults and $5/kids.
Want to see an ExploraDome presentation too? That’ll save you some bucks. Admission to the museum AND and ExploraDome is $11/adults and $7/kids. You can also see just an ExploraDome program (minus the museum admission) for $6/adults or $4/kids. If you plan on visiting the planetarium, they suggest you purchase your tickets online ahead of time to guarantee your spot (it’s tiny). If you pay for your ticket online and also want to visit the museum, that discount will be applied at the door when you arrive.
Children under 3 are free in all cases and on Sundays everyone is free all day long!
Get free museum admission and discounted planetarium tickets by becoming a Member of the Bell. You’ll also get free admission into many of their special events and savings on store purchases, summer camps and entry to the Science Museum and Landscape Arboretum. An annual membership starts at $30.
Oh, and parking. Let us never forget about parking. Ugh. There is a ramp off of Church Street and a 4th Street ramp for parking, but bring $4-10 to cover that cost.
Want some tips?
Let’s start with schedules – Sunday is free admission day so you better believe it’s busier than any other day. Saturdays after lunch are slower if you want to go on a weekend, otherwise weekday late afternoons are super chill (minus the occasional field trip bus). If you want to see an ExploraDome program, it’s recommended you purchase your tickets online to guarantee your spot, otherwise you can just buy your general museum admission at the front desk.
Bathrooms are located near the main lobby as well as in the Touch & See Discovery room. Coat racks and the gift shop are next to the front desk and the elevator is tucked down the hall. The museum is four floors tall (if not taller), and while there is an elevator that can get you from A to B, if you can, save yourself the time and trouble and ditch the stroller in the car.
The Bell Museum does offer a number of special programs, including Saturday with a Scientist, Traveling Exhibits and Sensory-friendly Saturdays (which offers a free mini planetarium show). They also host Summer Camps and Homeschool Days for the little smarty pants in your life. The Bell Museum also offers birthday parties for around $200.
Come prepared to spend a couple hours roaming around, staring at dioramas (and explaining why that wolf has a squirrel in his mouth – just sing “Circle of Life” to answer all their questions – that’s what I do) and playing in the Touch & See room as well as the special exhibit area. The ExploraDome shows are 45 minutes long so keep that in mind if you have a young one with a short attention span and/or little to no interest in the solar system.
You are there to learn and teach. That’s what this museum is all about. Do yourself a favor and put the phone away for this visit and instead, go in depth answering your kid’s questions or talk about whatever it is you’re looking at. There are some awesome deep-in-habitat cameras that study various specimen up-close and personal. We watched those for a long time and talked about all of them in great detail, while giggling at the giant sea turtle who pokes his nose into the camera lens. Why is the mother bird feeding her babies that way? How come wolf moms have so many pups? Can bears really climb trees like that? Can those little worms get into my house? (good god, I hope not!) It was fun and educational for both myself and my kiddos.
As far as dining goes, you’re right on campus, sitting square in the hub of Dinkytown. Make a treat of it and hit up one of the fun restaurants in that area, most walkable from the museum on a warm day. My favorites are Annie’s Parlour for a classic diner burger, Mesa Pizza for a quick and quirky slice of pizza, or Burrito Loco for a margarita. Wait, I meant to say taco. For a taco.
Hours and Location
10 Church Street SE | Minneapolis, MN 55455
Monday – Friday 9am – 5pm
Saturday 10am – 5pm
Sunday Noon – 5pm
It’s a little tricky to find the building, since it sits amongst many nearly-identical-looking brick campus buildings. I suggest finding the museum first and then locating the nearest ramp. Close ramps are on Church Street or 4th Street.
Follow The Bell Museum on Facebook to learn about special events, holiday hours, scientist visits, or unique exhibits and read about popular research news stories that will spark curiosity and wonder if people of all ages.
Disclaimer: I received four free passes to visit the Bell Museum in exchange for my time sharing this post and hosting this giveaway. All thoughts are my own.