At our local museums, get to know more about the state that brought you Spam and the first indoor mall.
If all you know about Minnesota is that the state once had a governor called “The Body” (in wrestling circles that is), its people say “you betcha” (thanks, Fargo) and there are 10,000 lakes (actually it’s closer to 12,000), then you have a lot to learn. The North Star State is the home of some of the country’s greatest artists, authors, musicians, inventors and explorers. Ever wondered where Judy Garland, Bob Dylan, Charles Schultz, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walter Mondale, Prince, Ann Bancroft or Al Franken came from? Look no further. The state is also a big part of the country’s economy. If you eat General Mills cereals, then you should probably know that that company is a big part of the reason that Minneapolis was once called flour milling capital of the world. To truly understand the state and its people, its best to get past the fictional accounts of Lake Wobegon from Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion and head to the heart of the Twin Cities, where numerous art, history and science museums are located. Take advantage of the “Minnesota nice” attitude of the staff at these local treasures and acquaint yourself with the real Minnesota.
Perhaps the best place to start in your quest to learn about Minnesota is the Minnesota History Center. Here you can learn what makes Minnesotans tick and what life was like before the area became the 32nd state. Located in downtown St. Paul, this museum dedicated to the preservation of the state’s history is housed in a building made of local materials, such as Rockville granite and Winona limestone. Permanent exhibits at the museum include Going Places: The Mystique of Mobility, which traces how mobility and travel shaped Minnesota; Sounds Good To Me: Music in Minnesota, an exhibit that explores Minnesotan’s musical history and Open House: If These Walls Could Talk, which uses an existing house as a window into daily life in Minnesota’s past. Two temporary exhibits will be on display this March. The first, Baseball as America, is a traveling testament to America’s fascination with the sport and how baseball has shaped American culture. Here you can also see photographs of the hometown team and learn about the Minnesota Twins’ two World Series wins (1987 and 1991). The second is Red Wing Retro: Everyday Pottery, Everyday Life, which offers an overview of more than 100 years of pottery from Red Wing, Minn.
Another great place to immerse in Minnesota history is the Mill City Museum. You may know the face of Betty Crocker or the laugh of the Pillsbury Dough Boy, but you probably don’t know how these two icons got their start. Inside the former Washburn A. Mill, which during its heyday made more than 12 million loaves of bread a day, visitors can see how Minneapolis became known as the “Mill City” and follow the creation of some of the mill’s more famous brands. Located on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, this new museum focuses on the impact that flour mills made on the landscape and economy of the state. The museum took over the ruins of the Washburn A. Mill in 2003 and now is a place to learn about Pillsbury, General Mills, and Betty Crocker. The newest attraction at the Mill City Museum, Minneapolis in 19 Minutes Flat, is a lighthearted film that explores the city’s history using photos, film and television footage, stories, memories and animation. The film was written by and stars local humorist, playwright and radio personality Kevin Kling. In addition to learning about the history of the Mill City from costumed docents (ask why the mill exploded twice in its history), you can take the Flour Tower eight-story elevator tour of the old mill and learn fun facts about the city. For instance, before Minnesota was home to the Twins, the local baseball team was called the Minneapolis Millers for the city’s mills.
Minnesotans are proud of the many contributions of their fellow citizens, from those well-known icons to the quiet but influential unknowns. For a look at the role one such local played in the history of medicine and technology, head to the Bakken Library and Museum. Housed in a mansion by Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, the museum is dedicated to education and learning that furthers the understanding of the history, cultural context, and applications of electricity and magnetism in the life sciences and their benefits to contemporary society. Earl Bakken, the namesake of the museum, developed the first wearable, external, battery-powered, transistorized pacemaker 50 years ago and helped co-found Medtronic, a local leader in medical technology. At the Bakken, visitors can participate in hands-on activities and experiments. There’s even the Bakken Aquarium, where visitors can see a black-ghost knife fish, a mormyrid, an electric eel and several transparent knife fish, which all use electricity in some way.
Another place for adults and children to get hands-on learning is the Science Museum of Minnesota. Since the Mississippi River is a defining part of Minnesota geography (it separates our Twin Cities) and the local ecosystem, the museum has a special display all about the great river, which begins up north in Lake Itasca State Park. The Mississippi River Gallery, the first exhibit visitors see upon entering, starts at the headwaters before following a river journey through Minnesota. The exhibit encourages visitors to think about how human actions impact the river and how the river ecosystem works. Check out the stream table to see how the Mississippi River has changed over time or head outside to see an authentic Mississippi River towboat on the gallery’s balcony. Look out over the railing and see the river itself. The Mississippi River Visitor Center is also located inside the Science Museum.
If the local ecosystem and the natural elements of the state are of interest, a trip to the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History is in order. Connect with the natural world inside the collections documenting Minnesota’s biodiversity. Established in 1872, the museum is located on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, and houses nearly 4 million specimens—mammals, birds, fishes, plants, mollusks and insects—that provide opportunities for research and learning. Two floors of dioramas display all of Minnesota’s habitats, along with the birds, animals, plants and insects that populate the state. Through March the museum’s Project Art for Nature exhibit will display the work of Minnesota and Wisconsin artists. Through different media, the work of these artists explores changes in the natural environment caused by weather, climate and human activity.
One can also learn about the area through the eyes of regional artists. At the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul, visitors will find the only museum in the Twin Cities dedicated to American art. Founded more than 75 years ago, the former art school has amassed a large collection of paintings. At the Riverfront Gallery, the MMAA displays works that range from the mid-19th century to the present with a special emphasis on Minnesota and regional artists. The new Environments of Invention exhibit shows the work of six Minnesota artists who found eccentric inspiration in the natural world.
After a long day of museum trips (if you dare to do all in a day), its time to head outdoors to really see the state. One place to do so and still get a glimpse of Minnesota history is at Fort Snelling. Located on the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, the fort was built between 1820 and 1825. First known as Fort St. Anthony, it served as a fort during World War II. Decommissioned in 1946 and labeled a landmark in 1960, the fort is currently a lively place to learn about Minnesota’s military history, as the fort has been restored to its original state and is staffed (during the summer) by costumed and knowledgeable personnel.
If you make it to all these Twin Cities museums, or even just a few, you’ll leave here with fun facts about our region and be able to tell your friend that while Minnesotans may “talk funny” and have an unusual ability to withstand cold weather, there’s a lot more to us and our fair state that’s worth knowing.