Minnesotan Chosen to Run Association of Museums

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007

As a child, Ford Watson Bell spent many days in the Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota, and that immersion led him to become a veterinarian. Later those same memories pushed him to be an activist in the robust museum community of Minneapolis.

Now all the streams of his personal interests and broad background with nonprofits and education over 30 years are coming together in a new challenge. The American Association of Museums has selected Bell, 57, as its new president, marking its first change of leadership in 20 years. The Washington-based organization is expected to make the announcement today to its 3,000 institutional members.

"This is the only job that would have enticed me outside Minnesota," Bell said yesterday. From 1995 to 2005, he was the president of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation. In 2006 he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate.

His Minnesota roots go deep. His grandfather James Ford Bell, a chemist and miller, moved to Minnesota in the 1880s and founded General Mills, home to Wheaties, Betty Crocker and the Pillsbury Doughboy.

"Museums are great chroniclers of our past," Bell says. But they need to join "our societal discussion about global warming, about science, as our oceans rise, about public health."

He arrives as a number of museums are dealing with scandals, fundraising challenges and debates over expansion.

Questions of managing places as diverse as the Getty in Los Angeles and the Smithsonian Institution have led to government investigations, turnovers in leadership and reassessment of their roles.

"For all nonprofits, governance is an important issue. The AAM does not set guidelines on salary issues. But everyone needs to be transparent," Bell says. Despite its current problems, Bell says the Smithsonian remains "a great institution." He adds, "I have no advice for them."

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