Roger Johnson and his grandson Ethan outside of the Bell Museum's Touch & See Lab on the St. Paul campus.

Touch, see, learn

Professor emeritus Roger Johnson was crucial to the Bell Museum’s Touch & See Lab, then and now

Visitors can find a CEHD legacy inside the new Bell Museum on the St. Paul campus. The museum—which opened in July at Cleveland and Larpenteur Avenues after nearly three years of development and a move from the Minneapolis campus—includes a revamped Touch & See Lab that gives visitors hands-on access to natural history specimens.

Science education professor emeritus Roger Johnson played a key role in creating the Touch & See space in the previous Bell Museum. Fifty years later, he enjoys exploring its much bigger successor with his grandchildren, including Ethan, who zinged around the lab, touching and learning, one day this fall.

Historically, natural history museums didn’t let guests touch any materials or collections. That all changed when the late Richard Barthelemy, the Bell’s public education coordinator in the late 1960s, had a radical idea.

Johnson and grandson Ethan got acquainted with a live Minnesota hog-nosed snake held by museum staffer and U student Anna Stockstad.

“Most people coming to the museum were under 12 years old,” says Johnson. “Bart started to see how different it looked and felt to them. He began inviting the kids to sit down on the carpet and then pulled out a bag of bones and fur from the basement. One day he came over to my office and asked, ‘As someone who knows child development, what kinds of things would you do to make things interesting and fun?’”

Barthelemy recruited Johnson to create a totally new museum experience. Johnson, co-founder of the Cooperative Learning Center with his brother David in educational psychology, had the unique perspectives and skills to design an environment to satisfy visitors of all ages. In 1968, the Bell Museum became the first natural history museum in the world with an interactive space.

“No plaques to read,” says Johnson. “And instead of just answering the children’s questions, we asked them, ‘What do you think?’ and gave them ideas for how to figure things out for themselves. Then when they leave the museum, they have a reason to look something up—like the difference between horns and antlers. They keep learning.”

Over the years Johnson has brought hundreds of future teachers to the museum as they learn teaching methods for careers around the world. The Bell also employs many students.

“One of my favorites is a monstrous bone on a little stand,” Johnson says. “Kids look at it and you ask what it is, and they might say it’s a dinosaur. They ask all kinds of questions. Maybe a rhinoceros. Maybe it’s an elephant. It’s just one bone and they will stay with it for quite a long time. And next to that there’s a skeleton of a deer, and when they get to the foot they notice that the deer is actually on tip-toe.”

Johnson and his grandson peered at each other through the tusk channel in an elephant’s skull in the Touch & See Lab.

Today’s Touch & See Lab still has the elephant skull and deer skeleton. The live animal collection is bigger. It also includes a living plant wall and digital microscopes and binoculars for visitors to use. A new education wing connected to the lab features four classrooms to support physical science and field biology programs.

“Now the whole museum is really, in many ways, a children’s museum,” Johnson observes. “That’s good, because most adults enjoy it the same way the kids do—they are experiencing the museum in a different way than just standing and looking. It’s a gem of the U.”

Learn more about the Bell Museum Touch & See Lab and about Roger Johnson and his brother David, pioneers in cooperative learning and education.

Story and photos by Gayla Marty | Winter 2019