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Bell Museum of Natural History records

Identifier: ua00876

Scope and Contents

The history of the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota is documented through the personal and professional papers of the directors, curators, educators, scientists, and students who conducted research, collected specimens, instructed courses, designed exhibits, developed educational programming, and utilized technology to document and interpret the natural history of the state of Minnesota and beyond. These activities were aided by benefactors and partners who provided financial, administrative, material, and observational contributions in support of the Museum’s mission.

The collection is organized into 4 series. Each series is further organized into sub-series, record groups, and sub-groups where applicable. Additional scope and contents notes are included at each level to provide additional context for the records described therein. The levels of arrangement are represented in this guide in nested form under “Navigate the Collection.”

  • Series 1: Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey: Zoological Division
  • Series 2: Bell Museum of Natural History records
  • Series 3: Minnesota Ornithology and Wildlife records
  • Series 4: Thomas Sadler Roberts papers
Portions of this collection were digitized in 2013. Digitized materials are represented by a file icon (correspondence, reports, etc.) and a camera icon (photographic materials) on individual item records. Select the icon to access the digital content in the UMedia Archive repository.

*The collection guide is currently under revision (July 2022)*


  • Creation: 1849-2018

Language of Materials

Collection material in English and Norwegian

Use of Materials

Items in this collection do not circulate and may be used in-house only. In adherence to best practices for preservation, certain audio reels, movie film, and other fragile materials require digitization for access.


Researchers may quote from the collection under the fair use provision of the copyright law (Title 17, U.S. Code). Requests to publish should be arranged with the University of Minnesota Archives.

Administrative History Note

On May 1, 1872, “An Act to provide for a Geological and Natural History Survey of the State and entrust the same to the University of Minnesota” was passed by the Minnesota state legislature. The law assigned to the Board of Regents the responsibility of conducting a survey of the geological, botanical, and zoological resources of the state and included a provision to collect and prepare specimens “to be preserved for public inspection… in charge of a proper scientific curator.”(1)

Newton Horace Winchell was employed as State Geologist and director of the Survey,(2) and was subsequently appointed Professor of Geology, and Curator of the Museum.(3) After the completion of an addition to the University Main building in 1875, the General Museum opened to the public.(4)

In 1888, the Regents established the role of State Zoologist and appointed Henry Francis Nachtrieb, Professor of Animal Biology, to oversee the zoological investigations of the Survey.(5) Conway MacMillan was hired to oversee instruction in Botany, and in 1890, was promoted to Assistant Professor and soon after was appointed State Botanist to direct the botanical Survey.(6) In 1889, the offices of the Survey and related academic departments, along with the museum collections, were removed from the Main building and established in the newly constructed Science Hall, later named Pillsbury Hall.(7)

In 1901, following the submission of the final reports of the geological portion of the Survey and the termination of Winchell’s services associated with it, the Regents acted to establish parameters for the conclusion of the work of the botanical and zoological divisions. The State Botanist and State Zoologist were instructed to complete the remaining investigations and publish applicable reports under a maximum allowance for each division.(8) Responsibility for the zoological specimens accumulated through the prosecution of Survey work and displayed in the Zoological Museum was continued by Nachtrieb in his role as head of the Department of Animal Biology; care of the botanical specimens, cataloged in the University Herbarium, was continued under the administration of the Department of Botany.

In 1915, Thomas Sadler Roberts was appointed Professor of Ornithology and Associate Curator of the Zoological Museum.(9) In 1916, museum collections and exhibits were removed from Pillsbury Hall and established in the newly constructed Animal Biology building.(10)

In 1919, the Zoological Museum was separated from the Department of Animal Biology and established as an independent unit of the University; Roberts was appointed Director.(11) In 1928, the Zoological Museum became the Museum of Natural History in title, (12) and in 1939 was renamed the Minnesota Museum of Natural History.(13)

In 1940, the museum moved from quarters in the Animal Biology building into a new building on the corner of Church St. and University Ave., built with funding from the Public Works Administration and a matching donation from museum benefactor James Ford Bell.(14)

In 1966, the museum was placed administratively within the College of Biological Sciences. In December 1966, the Regents approved an honorary name designation, and in May of 1967, the museum was dedicated as the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History.(15) In 1971, construction was completed on a new wing to the museum which afforded additional space for exhibitions, collections, and laboratories.(16)

In 1993, museum curators and the ornithology, mammalogy, herpetology, ichthyology, and invertebrate collections moved to the Ecology Building on the St. Paul campus.(17) Subsequent reorganizations in the science disciplines placed the museum under the administration of the College of Natural Resources (1995) and the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences (2006).

In 2017, the Church St. museum facility closed. Staff offices and exhibits were moved to a new facility on the University’s St. Paul campus. The Bell Museum reopened at that location in July of 2018.(18)


(1) Chapter 30 of the General Laws of the State of Minnesota, 1872
(2) Minutes: Board of Regents Meeting and Committee Meetings 1869-1887, July 16, 1872, pg. 64
(3) Minutes: Board of Regents Meeting and Committee Meetings 1869-1887, April 4, 1873 and April 10, 1873, pg. 83. The first “Report of the Curator of the Museum” can be found in the Annual Report of the Board of Regents for 1873 (PDF pgs. 67- 69)
(4) Reports on the General Museum are included in the Annual and Biennial Reports of the University
(5) Board of Regents Minutes, 1888-1905: June 4, 1888, pg. 329; November 20, 1988, pg. 333.
(6) Board of Regents Minutes, 1888-1905: September 16, 1890, pg. 364; December 2, 1890, pg. 365.
(7) University President Cyrus Northrop provides a report on the facilities of the Science Hall (Pillsbury Hall) in the Biennial Report of the Board of Regents 1889-1990 (PDF pgs. 19-22).
(8) Minutes: Board of Regents Meetings: 1900-1906, December 10, 1901 (PDF pgs. 78-79).
(9) Board of Regents Minutes, May 6, 1915 (PDF pg. 3).
(10) Thomas Sadler Roberts reported on the status of the Zoological Museum at this point of transition in the Report of the Zoological Survey and Museum for 1916-1917: The President’s Report, 1916-1917 (PDF pgs. 156-163).
(11) University of Minnesota Budgets, 1919-1920 (PDF pg. 37).
(12) Board of Regents Meeting Minutes, January 6, 1928 (PDF pg. 7).
(13) Board of Regents Meeting Minutes, September 30, 1939 (PDF pg. 6).
(14) Report of the Minnesota Museum of Natural History, submitted by Thomas Sadler Roberts, Director, The Biennial Report of the President, 1938-1940 (PDF pgs. 399-400). See also, “The New Museum of Natural History,” The Minnesota Alumni Weekly, June 3, 1939 (PDF pg. 89).
(15) Honorary building title approved by the Regents upon the request of the Committee on University Honors and recommendation of the President, Board of Regents Meeting Minutes, December 9, 1966 (PDF pg. 41). A dedication ceremony was held on May 19, 1967 at the museum. See “Natural History Museum Will Be Renamed For James Ford Bell,”Press Releases April - May, 1967 (PDF pgs. 136-137).
(16) Grant received for construction from the National Science Foundation in 1962: “NSF Gives $50,000 Toward Building ‘U’ Museum Wing,” Press Releases, May - September 1962 (PDF pgs. 232-234); groundbreaking held in 1964: “Ground Will Be Broken Thursday for Bell Memorial Wing of Museum,” Press Releases, July - December 1964 (PDF pgs. 40-41 ); opened in May 1971: “Nature Art Exhibit to Celebrate Opening of Bell Museum Wing,” Press Releases, April - June 1971 (PDF pgs. 49-50).
(17) Groundbreaking held in June, 1991: “Ecology Building at U of Minnesota A First,”Press Releases 1991 (PDF pg. 66).
(18) “The Bell Comes Alive,” Minnesota Alumni, Summer 2018, Vol. 117 No. 4 (PDF pgs. 18-30). Multiple articles describe the design, construction, and move to the new facility.

Museum Names

  • General Museum
  • Zoological Museum
  • Museum of Natural History (1928-1938)
  • Minnesota Museum of Natural History (1938-1967)
  • James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History (1967-2017)
  • Bell Museum (2018 - present)

Museum Facilities and Locations

Museum Directors


367 boxes (+ 202 film reels in canisters; 2 map drawers)


Collection contains the administrative, exhibition, and program records of the Bell Museum of Natural History, the personal and professional papers of director Thomas Sadler Roberts, and observational records of museum staff and other contributors that document the natural history of Minnesota and beyond.

*The collection guide is currently under revision (July 2022).*

Source of acquisition

The collection was deposited in multiple donations to University Archives by staff of the Bell Museum of Natural History.

Processing Information

*The collection guide is currently under revision to incorporate records processed in the Spring/Summer of 2022. Additional description and record groups will be added to the contents list and note fields in the Summer of 2022.*

The original collection donation, consisting of the personal and professional papers of Thomas Sadler Roberts, materials related to the zoological division of the Geological and Natural History Survey, and other records documenting museum activities was processed in 1968 by Penelope Krosch (74 hollinger boxes). Folders were numbered in consecutive order.

Additional accretions were processed in 2009, 2013, 2017, and 2022.

In 2013-2014, a large portion of the records from the original donation were digitized with funding provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society as part of the Exploring Minnesota's Natural History grant project. Digitized content is denoted on item records with a box that contains a file icon. Click on the box/icon to access the digital materials in the UMedia Archive repository.

In 2021-2022, this collection was processed for the Minnesota Landscapes grant project, with funds provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society.

Bell Museum of Natural History records
In Progress
Penelope Krosch, Rebecca Toov, Katelyn Morken
June 1968; June 2022
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English

Revision Statements

  • February 2010: Finding aid updated by Karen Spilman. Box list reviewed for accuracy and additional accretions added: 444 (Birds of Minnesota plates), 877 (Bell Museum - primarily W. Breckenridge papers), 878 (Bell Museum - D.K. Lewis papers), and various materials from the print collection.
  • 2014: Updated by Rebecca Toov
  • 2017: Updated by Rebecca Toov
  • 2022: Updated by Lydia Larson, Rachel Weiher, Katelyn Morken, and Rebecca Toov

Collecting Area Details

Contact The University Archives Collecting Area