Up Close and Personal at the Bell Museum of Natural History—While at Home!

February 1, 2011

See the full post for details on where to view these new panoramas of the Bell Museum Jaques dioramas. The detail allows you to get up close and personal.

Above: a screen shot of a close up section from a Gigpan of Francis Lee Jaques' Moose Diorama mural at the Bell Museum of Natural History, University of Minnesota. Gigapan photo by Tom Nelson. Image used here with permission of the Bell Museum and Tom Nelson. (That's the wall texture you're seeing!)

Let's say you don't live in Minnesota and never get to the Bell Museum, or you live here, even in the Twin Cities, and can get to the Bell but you long to view the Jaques paintings in the dioramas more closely. How does he blend his colors? How exactly is he losing an edge there in the shadows?

I've been going to the Bell Museum my entire life (even when we didn't live in Minnesota I can remember visiting and seeing the museum with relatives). I love the diorama backgrounds painted by the legendary Francis Lee Jaques. I marvel at how he captures depth, how he suggests fur or feathers, how he catches light on the landscape, and of course, how he cheats—that wonderful skill of rendering in 2-D what we see in 3-D, but still making it look 3-D.

I sketch the taxidermy at the Bell frequently (in any given semester I'm there so often that the student at the desk just waves me in and doesn't even ask to see my membership card). I spend a little time on every trip, studying these murals. But like the kids who come on the school trips, up until now, I've had to be happy with pressing my nose against the glass to get the closest look possible.

Now Don Luce of the Bell Museum has let photographer Tom Nelson into the Bell to take Gigapan photos of several of the dioramas. Tom started with the Sandhill Cranes, Wolves, and the Moose, three great choices.

The images he created are stitched panaramas that have a resolution higher than I can count. This allows the gigapan viewer to zoom in on areas of interest, like the Moose calf's eyes shown above, and get close enough to see what Jaques saw when he was painting. (I actually have tears of joy in my eyes right now just typing about this!)

Armed with a bit of window cleaner, a huge knowledge of light (exposures) and photography, and access to the light control panels—to prevent glass glare all the museum lights were off save the lighting in the diorama—Tom has captured the detail of these dioramas in a way that will allow even armchair taxidermists and painters access. (And he did it all while I was dancing around behind him asking non-stop questions and oohhing and ahhing. It's actually amazing what he can do, even when being pestered!)

For several decades now Tom has made my world more interesting visually—showing me through his photography, things that can't be seen by the human eye alone. Now you can have a little bit of the fun too. Thank you Tom! And thank you Don for giving Tom the go ahead to capture these treasures in a unique way. (Next winter, instead of walking over in -5 degree F weather I might just spend the afternoon at home studying!)

You can find Tom Nelson's gallery of gigapans of various dioramas at the Bell Museum here.

You can find Tom Nelson's gigapan of the Moose diorama at the Bell Museum here.

You can go to the Bell Museum in person.

Even more imporant, consider becoming a member of the Bell Museum today. The Bell Museum remains a valuable educational and artistic resource.

And don't forget that every FIRST THURSDAY of the month is Sketch Night at the Bell. You'll see specimens that aren't normally available to the public, be able to ask science and sketching questions, and meet a fun group of sketchers all interested in learning more about the natural world. (Note: we have a meeting Thursday, Feb. 3, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.)

Note: I'm not financially affiliated with the Bell in anyway except as a paying member. (I volunteer on Sketch Night, it's not like I wouldn't be going anyway!) The subtitle of my blog is "My Many Enthusiasms." Well there are few things I'm as enthused about as I am about the Bell. Sure it has some sentimental value to me as a child and graduate student at the University of Minnesota. But it also provides an under utilized resource for artists and educators. I'm grateful to have had access to this inspiring work throughout my life. I know that it was in the Bell and in Chicago's Field Museum that as an urban child I first started thinking about the natural world and the interdependece between the natural world and the man-made world. And where I first fell in love with birds and the idea that it was possible and good to capture them in paint.

Maybe you know a urban child who could do with a little inspiration and some mental exercise? Start taking him or her to the Bell. Start going once a month. Study one diorama at a time. Really look at it. Ask yourself what you're seeing. Sketch. Write down questions you have to investigate in the library later. And then go back again and again.

How many things in life can you look at over and over again and learn something new from each time?

Utilize the Bell to train and encourage your favorite inquisitive mind.

    • Ambal
    • February 1, 2011

    Roz, Thank you, Tom, and Don for enabling us non-Minnesotans to share this delight. I followed the link to the Sand Hill cranes view and had a chance to see the eye and beak structures. These birds are often feeding on roadside medians here in Tampa, but being able to study them up close is a real treat! Thanks again, Ambal.

    • Carolyn
    • February 1, 2011

    OMG, you answered my wish, Roz! I’m sending you chocolate! I may not be back to read for awhile, maybe days, as I’ll be off gazing at these amazing GigiPans. (I never knew there was such a thing!)

  1. Reply

    Ambal, I’m so glad that you are enjoying the diorama Gigapans, seeing birds that you have local connection with!

  2. Reply

    Diane, I’m so glad that you are enjoying the Cranes—they are one of my favorite dioramas and I can look and look at them forever. Have fun sketching those marvelous birds! Yep, no excuses for any of us, even on museum holidays!

  3. Reply

    Carolyn, don’t bother to send me any chocolate (but thank you for the very kind thought). If you have fun staring at the Gigipans enough, you could always send a thank you check to the Bell. I know they are constantly trying to raise funds and even small amounts are appreciated.

    Study away. Maybe one day you can visit them in person!

    • Miss T
    • February 1, 2011

    Wow. Very, very cool!

  4. Reply

    these photos are wonderful and the paintings are absolutely amazing. absolutely.

    • Diane
    • February 2, 2011

    And Roz, speaking of museums I just discovered this…..

    ain’t technology great?


  5. Reply

    Carolyn, I don’t have an email address for you and didn’t want to wait until you got something in the mail, so many thanks for the emergency chocolate! I love the way you wrapped it up.

    • Carolyn
    • February 18, 2011

    😉 My pleasure! It’s collage with paper and chocolate.

  6. Reply

    Carolyn, you built on an illustration of one of my favorite New Yorker illustrators, so I glued your wrapping paper in my journal! I love it. (Didn’t hurt that you added the Boston Terrier!)

    Go check out Tom’s site now because he has a gob more of these gigapans!!!!!

    • Carolyn
    • February 18, 2011

    Cool. You know, I didn’t note who the illustrator is, but I do like the style. Who is the illustrator? (Did you notice the braids on the driver?)

    Thanks for the heads up on Tom’s site. I’m so enthralled! Amazing— both the art, and the Gigipan site.

  7. Reply

    Carolyn, the wrapping paper you made for the chocolate was made over a New Yorker cover by Adrian Tomine. And yes I did notice the braids. I actually wear a neck gaiter not unlike that and a friend just knit me some fingerless handwarmers. Art meets reality!

    Many thanks again.

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