I knew I was making a mistake by waiting all these years to make my first trip to the Bakken Museum. “It’s awesome!” said everyone. “I know!” said I. “It’s on my bucket list!” Yet, I never made a point of going. What a fool I’ve been.
One thing I did right, at least: I chose October for my first visit to the museum. Turning off Zenith Avenue onto the Bakken’s grounds, I entered a Technicolor autumnal wonderland. The museum itself, housed in a 1920s mansion that’s a mash-up of Tudor and Gothic Revival styles, feels like the inviting home of a friendly mad scientist.
That’s actually not a bad way to describe the museum’s founder Earl Bakken (now 91 and living in Hawaii), who was inspired, as a child, by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. When a storm on Halloween night in 1957 knocked out the power in Minneapolis and almost killed a child at the University of Minnesota hospital who relied on an early pacemaker, a heart surgeon asked Bakken if his company Medtronic could develop a battery-powered pacemaker.
The rest, as they say, is history: Medtronic today employs 80,000 people, and in 1975 Bakken founded the museum bearing his name to educate the world about the wonders of electricity.
I’d heard about the wacky medical devices—and those, indeed, are there, along with such dubious contraptions as the “ghost detector” pictured above. Of course, it must have seemed plausible when that device was built that electricity could travel between our world and the world of the dead: its powers seem almost magical, and part of the charm of the Bakken is the way visitors are reminded of that.
The highlight of my visit was a trip to the static electricity room, where a friendly staffer helped my friends and me to play with electrical fields that alternately attracted and repelled bits of paper from our hands; caused bells to mysteriously ring; and even created a tiny jolt of lighting to spring from my hand to the chandelier. We tossed electricity at each other, transferred it around a circle of people holding hands, and watched it slowly thrill a baby who hung suspended in a carrier from the chest of his dad, who placed a hand on a Van de Graaff generator.
Needless to say, the museum also contains a shrine to Ben Franklin, as well as a little theater where props come to life to tell the story of Frankenstein. It was totally cheesy, but also totally effective—to the point where the little boy sitting on the bench in front of us made a punching motion with his fist when the monster appeared. The interactive exhibits include a Theremin (!), a Force-like ball game that monitors brain waves and hands victory to the player who can more thoroughly relax, and a new exhibit called “Electropolis” that celebrates the arrival of the urban power grid. Infrastructure geeks—you know who you are—take note.
The Bakken has long been an open secret in Minneapolis, hidden in plain sight on Lake Calhoun. If you haven’t yet discovered it, get on that. It’s the best kind of shock value.