Historic Minnesota

Minnesota HistorY Center

In the early 1990s, art collector and businessman Raymond Johnson began acquiring Russian Realist art from the Soviet era (1921-1991). His resulting collection of more than 10,000 paintings, believed to be the largest of its kind outside of the former Soviet Union, led him to establish The Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) in Bloomington, Minn., in 2002. Three years later, Johnson and his wife moved the collection to its current location: a masterfully remodeled Spanish revival-style building in Southwest Minneapolis, once home to a community church.

While TMORA is the only museum in the country dedicated to the presentation of 20th-century Russian art, in the Twin Cities, examining cultures of all periods is an adventure within easy reach. With some 20 major museums between Minneapolis and St. Paul, and twice as many galleries, it’s clear that we’re open to creative expressions of all fields; be it the High Modernist installations of the Walker Art Center or the fossil displays of the Science Museum of Minnesota. Such institutions thrive because, like the museums themselves, the whole community is devoted to the procurement, care, study and display of objects of lasting value.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which first opened its doors in 1915, carries one of the most comprehensive collections in the United States. Virtually 5,000 years of World history are examined through Rembrandt paintings, Greek sculptures and one of the nation’s largest displays of classical Chinese art and architecture, just to name a few highlights. To fit its ever-increasing collection, the museum recently added a $50 million, 113,000-square-foot wing designed by Michael Graves. In June 2006, the new addition opened to the public together with The Surreal Calder, a stunning exhibition of 70 works by American sculptor Alexander Calder and the artists who informed his style.

For the vanguard in contemporary art, the Walker Art Center is among the nation’s foremost venues, showcasing a wide range of groundbreaking exhibitions. Newly renovated by Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, the Walker doubled its size, adding 130,000 square feet when its doors reopened in spring 2005. Several new galleries and gardens hold the museum’s expanding collection, while rooftop terraces offer breathtaking city views. A new 385-seat Theater, café, shop and Wolfgang Puck-operated restaurant also make the Walker one of the most acclaimed museums of its kind in the nation.

Adjacent to the Walker sits the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, one of the largest urban sculpture gardens in the country with 40 permanent installations, including the centerpiece Spoonbridge and Cherry. Even with 11 acres to cover, it’s hard to miss that signature sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. A giant cherry impossibly balanced on the tip of an equally massive spoon, it’s practically the symbol of Minneapolis. When the Guthrie Theater, the Walker’s previous neighbor, moved to its new riverfront facility in June 2006, French landscape architect Michel Desvigne began to fill the landscape with a four-acre green space, raising the total garden acreage to 15.

Another collection whose home is as much a work of art as anything inside is the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum, known for its curvy, sculpture-like stainless steel exterior. Designed by Frank Gehry, who went on to create the celebrated Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, the museum has “five of the most gorgeous galleries on earth,” or so once stated in The New York Times. Inside, the Weisman boasts a collection of more than 17,000 pieces of mostly modern art, from Warhol to works from the early 20th century.

One of the most visited museums in the Midwest isn’t full of fine art and it doesn’t mind if you look with your hands as well as your eyes: the Science Museum of Minnesota. The museum moved into a massive, sun-filled new facility overlooking St. Paul’s Mississippi riverfront in 1999, and brought with it a gaggle of great new displays and presentations. Exhibits cover biology, physics and history in interactive areas meant to make science accessible. High above visitors’ heads, a “superhighway of blood” pumps away in giant tubes in the Human Body Gallery. Gargantuan skeletons of Jurassic Age giants loom everywhere, but especially in the Dinosaurs and Fossils Gallery, where kids can get a closer look at just how big these bad boys were by climbing into a “dinosaur stomach.”

Lutefisk. That’s one mystery of nature the Science Museum doesn’t tackle, but the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis does. Even those not named Anderson find the lye-soaked fish and other characteristics of Swedish immigrant life interesting, not least because Scandinavians had an undeniable effect on the development of the Twin Cities. Their traditions are chronicled in institute exhibits, which also feature changing shows about Scandinavian life and artists. The museum is housed in what amounts to a fairy-tale castle: a 33-room mansion that took 200 craftsmen four years to build.

As for “America born-and-raised,” the Minnesota Museum of American Art in downtown St. Paul is the only museum in the state solely dedicated to American art. Primarily focusing on exhibitions and research, the museum represents the cultural, racial and regional diversity of American art and artists, with retrospectives of such giants as Norman Rockwell and lesser-known local artists.

Old Man River cuts through our state and once attracted French fur traders, Union soldiers and flour industry workers. We’re also famous for General Mills, the Golden Gophers and Post-Its. Keeping all this history in check is quite a job for the Minnesota Historical Society. Fortunately, the cultural institution has been around since 1849—nine years before Minnesota even became a state. Eventually the society needed a place to hold its many collections. Hence, the Minnesota History Center was built in downtown St. Paul in 1992. From exhibits on Bob Dylan, Prince and other Minnesota musicians, to the stories of ethnic settlements and agriculture, as well as impressive temporary and traveling exhibitions throughout the year, this is an interactive, cleverly done museum that makes everyone’s history seem personal.

Of further historical significance to the Twin Cities is the flour milling industry that fueled Minneapolis’ growth, earning us the “Mill City” moniker. The Washburn A Mill was the largest flourmill in the world and the most technically advanced at the industry’s peak. The local milling industry began its decline after World War I and—as the industry moved out of town—the old mills fell into disuse. The Washburn A Mill closed in 1965 and was nearly destroyed by fire in 1991. Built within the charred ruins of the historic mill, the Mill City Museum chronicles Minneapolis’ flour industry and the impact it made on the region, the nation and the world. Interactive displays bring the story to life, while an observation deck supplies spectacular views of the Riverfront District.

If you’re a parent, chances are your kids learn best through play. If so, you’d be wise to work the Minnesota Children’s Museum into your Twin Cities itinerary. Infants to pre-teens will discover their own path to fun through seven lively galleries and a Rooftop ArtPark, all providing memorable sensory activities in the heart of downtown St. Paul.

Other must-sees include the American Museum of Asmat Art in St. Paul and the Hennepin History Museum in Minneapolis, along with the Bell Museum of Natural History and the Goldstein Museum of Design, located on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses, respectively. Indeed, from ancient ruins to pop art prints to every treasure in between, the Twin Cities puts world history and culture on dazzling display.

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