Emily Minge played Connect Four with a prosthetic arm to experience what it feels like to use one.

© Star Tribune/Star Tribune/RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII/Star Tribune/TNS
Emily Minge played Connect Four with a prosthetic arm to experience what it feels like to use one.

In the backroom of an old mansion near Bde Maka Ska, a purple light hovered over a white sheet that appeared to be floating. A shaky voice narrated from Mary Shelley’s book “Frankenstein,” the story that inspired Medtronic co-founder Earl Bakken to become an inventor.

Andrew Hilger, a family program coordinator at the Bakken Museum, and Anika Taylor, associate director of education, created kinetic art through movement as part of the new “Spark” exhibit.

© Star Tribune/Star Tribune/RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII • [email protected]/Star Tribu…
Andrew Hilger, a family program coordinator at the Bakken Museum, and Anika Taylor, associate director of education, created kinetic art through movement as part of the new “Spark” exhibit.

Suddenly a shadowy figure popped out of a little door in the corner of the room, startling siblings Anna and Katie Woodling and their mom, Peggy.

They’d never been to the innovation-focused Minneapolis museum before. Its classic “Frankenstein” exhibit was as new to them as the freshly installed “Spark” show, which focuses on inventions by a diverse group of people.

“I didn’t know how much you could interact with everything,” said Anna. “I thought it was just going to be walking through, reading about something.”

“She’s excited to bring her baby,” said Peggy.

Anna nodded, saying the stimulation would be perfect for her 1-year-old.

The Bakken Museum reopens Friday after a $7 million makeover of its lower level, including the antiquated entrance, some exhibit spaces, classrooms, lobby and store.

Before, the front door was hard to find, nestled at the end of a hidden walkway at the bottom of the sloping parking lot. Originally built as a private residence, its entrance was meant to disappear into its surroundings. Now the path is wide open, with a towering, impossible-to-miss glass entrance overlooking the Dakota Native Plants garden and Bde Maka Ska (formerly Lake Calhoun).

The Bakken lives in the quirky West Winds mansion. With its mix of English Tudor and European Gothic Revival architecture, winding staircases, mysterious nooks and crannies and an intricately tiled fireplace with the Latin inscription “Fire is the soul of all things,” the museum might bring to mind a Harry Potter novel.

But more than just a remodel, the Bakken wanted to reinvent itself from the inside out.

“Museums are a place to foster dialogue in the community,” said the Bakken’s president/CEO, Michael Sanders. “We want to have our mission of innovation, but we want people to explore stuff at their own interest level.”

The museum, known for its STEM education programs and school field trips, wanted to reach a broader audience.

The renovation turns the ground floor into a wide-open space where the new permanent exhibition “Spark” lives. It’s full of shiny, interactive displays, like an oversize “magic” book offering text in English and Spanish from five science-fiction novels, including Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”

A white sports hijab invented by Minnesotan Fatimah Hussein, who founded a company that makes activewear for Muslim women, glows in a glass case in the middle of the room.

An informative display tells the story of Native American code talkers, who sent coded messages in Indigenous languages during World War II.

In a station about prosthetics inventions, there’s a chance to try on a prosthetic arm and play the tic-tac-toe-like game Connect Four to see what it would be like to have one.

The museum hopes to introduce innovation to kids and adults alike.

From mansion to museum

The reopening isn’t without challenges. While the pandemic didn’t slow construction, which began in January, it did close the museum in mid-March, slightly ahead of the planned April-June remodeling shutdown. The museum reopened July 16, then closed last month to prepare for this weekend’s grand opening.

Because of the pandemic, attendance is already limited to 25% of normal capacity.

“It’s a weird time to be a museum,” said Sanders. “People generally aren’t comfortable coming to indoor, enclosed spaces, but we think we can be even more relevant by being more accessible to the broader community.”

To aid overwhelmed parents during the pandemic, the museum launched the Bakken Clubhouse, a supplemental schoolwork support program for kids in grades three through eight who are distance learning.

The Bakken hired RSP Architects, which worked on the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Target Wing and the Spam Museum in Austin, Minn., for the renovation project, which was funded by private and corporate donations.

The Bakken isn’t the only historic mansion-turned-museum in the Twin Cities that has sought to reinvent itself.

In 2012, the American Swedish Institute added the 34,000-square-foot Nelson Cultural Center with a modern entrance and cafe. Previously, visitors entered through the hulking, stone Turnblad Mansion.

The institute also renovated 10,000 square feet of the mansion’s galleries as part of an effort to broaden its focus while reaching out to the Phillips West neighborhood and newer immigrant communities.

“I think part of reinventing a museum is through architecture and design,” said its president, Bruce Karstadt. “Our only entrance was on Park Avenue. That’s a rather intimidating and foreboding portal, and if you weren’t Swedish or didn’t identify [as such], there were a lot of people who weren’t sure they would be welcomed.”

Sparking diversity

Like many cultural institutions, the Bakken says it is working on increasing diversity, equity and access, recognizing that museums have historically kept people of color out of leadership positions.

The Bakken has 30 full-time and part-time staffers, but declined to offer stats on staff diversity. A spokesperson said its leaders “agree that having a more diverse staff is critical” and that the museum is committed to doing the “work of ensuring that there is an internal culture that supports ‘difference’ so that we can retain a diverse staff.”

The “Spark” exhibition is entirely in Spanish and English, but it includes no Latinx inventors. There’s also a noticeable absence of Asian American innovators, though the Bakken recently added pieces to the “Inspired for Good” display to highlight innovators of Asian descent, including a set of handcrafted grain dolls (ningyo) from the Bakken’s own collection, by Japanese artist Nomura Yoshimitsu.

“It’s not an intentional exclusion,” said Sanders. “We chose stories of innovation and tried to be as inclusive as possible, but there are opportunities to create more content, and we want to reach out to those communities.”

In that sense, the internal work may just be starting, even if the outward-facing architectural work is complete.

“In many ways, this building is a museum of itself,” said RSP principal architect Derek McCallum, speaking of the 90-year-old mansion before its renovation. “Even in some of the exhibit spaces downstairs, you can get distracted by the architecture.”

Earl Bakken’s vision

The Bakken Museum exists because of its namesake, the inventor of the pacemaker. Born in 1924 and raised in Columbia Heights, Earl Bakken became fascinated with electricity as an 8-year-old after watching the horror classic “Frankenstein.”

In 1949 he cofounded Medtronic, which became the world’s largest medical device manufacturing company.

Although he passed away two years ago at age 94, the Bakken Museum remains rooted in his “high-tech, high-touch” vision for medicine.

“As a kid, he was a tinkerer,” said his son Brad Bakken, the museum’s board chair and CEO of Citizens Independent Bank. “He made a robot that could smoke.”

He recalls his dad’s desire to help humankind through innovations.

“He used to say things like, ‘Someday there will be a toilet seat that takes your temperature, blood pressure, heartbeat and does tests on your specimens,’?” he said. “That was decades ago. Now with telemedicine, it’s almost a reality.”

Over the years, Earl Bakken collected devices and books chronicling the medical uses of electricity, and founded the museum as a home for his collection in 1975. Construction on the West Wing began in 1997, nearly doubling the museum’s size to 25,000 square feet.

In 2016, the museum formally shifted its focus from electricity and magnetism to invention and innovation.

“Fifteen years ago we were focusing on the process of inventing things,” said Elaine Rock, the Bakken’s youth programs coordinator, who was a day-camper at the museum in 2004. “Now we can take a much bigger look at how inventions and innovations can change the world.”

Even in uncertain times, the desire to keep innovating remains the cornerstone of Bakken’s legacy.

“We are very attached to the story of someone inspired to innovate in a way that helps people and makes the community better,” said Sanders. “There’s something very iconic to the Twin Cities about this story and museum, and we want to carry that piece of his legacy forward.”

@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437


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