When the Milwaukee Public Museum moves to a new, smaller facility in the next few years, it’ll lose more than just space. The exhibits at the new museum will be designed by a New York firm called Thinc Design—marking the first time in MPM’s 100-year history that its exhibits won’t be designed in-house.
For Emilio Bras, that’s an incalculable loss. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Bras attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee from 1979-1984, and began working full-time at MPM in 1987. Over the next 34 years, he worked his way up through the exhibit-design ranks, lending his talents to eight major permanent exhibits (his first was the ever-popular rainforest exhibit) and more than 68 temporary exhibits—21 of them designed at MPM.
On the heels of Bras’ retirement in February, Milwaukee Record spoke to him about his many decades at the museum, his unlikely introduction to mount-making and lighting design, his thoughts on the new museum, and what it all means to him as a Milwaukeean. [The following Q&A has been edited for length.]
Milwaukee Record: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to the museum?
Emilio Bras: I graduated from high school in Puerto Rico, and I came to UWM to study fine arts with a concentration in visual communications. At the end of my bachelor’s degree, there were some courses called Professional Practice. It was pretty much like an internship back in the day. My professor was the one who set me up with the museum. He said, “Emilio, you will be a good match for the museum.”
So I did my internship here at the museum. For a semester I mentored under Lee Tishler. He was one of the exhibit designers at the time. So I did my internship, graduated, and didn’t think much about it. I worked at Summerfest after that, running the sign shop for a few years. And then I worked at Badger Exposition Service, which back then was like a trade show company, and I worked in their sign department.
And then a position opened. I found a position in the newspaper for the museum and I thought, hmm, it would be interesting to go back there. And the funny thing was I bumped into Lee Tishler on Downer Avenue, and he’s the one who told me, “Emilio, you go right ahead and apply as soon as possible. I’ll keep an eye out for your resume.”
I took the test—back then the museum was part of the county so I took the county test—and I passed and I had my interview and I started working in the museum doing maintenance, fixing a lot of things in the exhibits that would get broken. But then, slowly, I was working with the other artists and getting into other projects and just kind of slowly working my way up.
MR: So this was around the time when you started, in the late ’80s. What happened next?
EB: In 1991 I became the head mount-maker and lighting designer. That kind of fell in my lap by accident. A few years before, we had a traveling exhibit that came from the Smithsonian. It was called “Magnificent Voyagers,” and it was the travels of the USS Porpoise and all the materials that they collected. It was a pretty large exhibit. And it came to the museum and something had happened with the mounts—you know, the little brackets that support the objects in the cases. A lot of the mounts got lost, or they didn’t get packed. So the conservator at the time, Ron Harvey, he kind of grabbed me by the neck and he said, “Come with me, Emilio. We’re gonna make mounts.”
That was the beginning of me learning what mounts were all about and making mounts. Up until that time, I was just doing artist work. I was either painting or helping build the foregrounds in the exhibits, installing critters here and there, installing plants here and there. When I did the mounts for that exhibit, the conservator told me, “You’re really good at this. I think you should make mounts for all the exhibits.”
The thing was, when the museum moved to this building in the 1960s, exhibit work wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today. The methods of installing artifacts in cases wasn’t, let’s say, proper. They were using materials and methods that today you really wouldn’t use. Using wires, driving a nail through something. You just don’t do that anymore. So mount-making was a skill in the museum trade that was becoming more and more important and more needed.
We were going through the entire museum and looking at cases that needed to be remounted, because they weren’t displayed properly back then. Artifacts were getting damaged. Something that was used a lot in that day was museum wax. It was almost like a little sticky putty kind of thing. You stuck it on the wall and you took your item and you stuck it to the wax and there it would stay. But the problem with museum wax was that it had oils, and that oil would slowly seep into the artifacts and damage them. Pottery would get stained, leather and cloth and other materials would get stained from the museum wax.
MR: You also got into lighting, correct?
EB: Yes, lighting was another aspect. As the exhibits were becoming more and more theatrical, it became more and more important to have someone that would overlook the lighting of the exhibits, and also protect the artifacts. Back in the day, it was common to simply put a bright spotlight on something. Years later, you would discover this thing was no longer red, it was pink. So the museum sent me to workshops and seminars in different places. I had also taken a little bit of theater design as part of my education, so I spoke to some of the lighting people in the theater department and got some ideas from them. The lighting became crucial for the exhibit design. We wanted to make sure shadows wouldn’t be landing on objects and things would be lit a little bit more dramatic, and not just simply use one bright floodlight.
MR: There are obviously a lot of changes coming to the museum in the next few years. What are your thoughts on the big relocation?
EB: Well, it’s a whole array of mixed feelings. I do understand the idea behind moving to a different building. The county has not been taking care of this building very well for all the years that I’ve been here. It’s always been like pulling teeth to get the county to do the basic maintenance repairs for the museum. They’ve done some major repairs. Our roof has been repaired a couple of times because that’s one of the sources of our leaks. But besides that, there are many components that still need to be upgraded: HVAC, plumbing, electrical.
I think something that really hurt us was making us private. That was a big, big mistake. There’s no way a public institution like ours can survive on admissions and donations only. It’s just impossible. Back in the day when I started, the county basically paid for our salaries. We were the stewards of the museum. We took care of the museum. We worked on the exhibits, but any new exhibit that we wanted to build, that money came from the Friends of the Museum. They were the ones who went out to the community and raised the funds to build new exhibits. They didn’t have to raise money to pay for our salaries. That’s the hard part: When they made us private, they had to go out there and tell donors, “We need this much money to pay for Emilio’s salary.” And donors, they don’t know me, they don’t know what I do. They’re not going to give money for that. They want to give money for a new gallery or a new exhibit.
So that was a big mistake right there. I think there was a total lack of leadership from supervisors back in that day, in agreeing with that, because all of a sudden they saw this pool of money coming back to the county. And then the supervisors lost control of what happened at the museum. And then you had this line of presidents, CFOs, and all these people who were making six-figure salaries. While the employees, everybody’s pay stayed flat. I think I had seven directors since the time we went private, and maybe two were good for the museum.
It’s sad because the museum, when I started, was a nationally recognized and even world-recognized institution. We used to have people from other museums come and visit us to see our exhibits and see our ideas and see how we were approaching things. The rainforest is one exhibit that won an award from the National Science Foundation. But we slowly kind of decayed into the show we are today. That’s very, very hard on the heart.
MR: Is the building really in that bad of shape at this point?
EB: Yes, the building is in pretty poor condition. Energy wise, we’re like a sieve. Heat and stuff goes out our windows like Swiss cheese. But I don’t know. I’ve seen museums that are even older than ours, and they renovate their buildings. They fix their buildings and they’re still there. The American Museum in New York, that building is from the late 1800s, early 1900s. The Field Museum in Chicago is another building that’s really old, and they keep expanding. I don’t understand why that can’t happen here, and why we have to shrink. We’re not going to have what we have here right now. All this is going to go away. It’s going to be totally different.
MR: What do you think is going to be lost by hiring an outside firm to design the new museum’s exhibits?
EB: Everything you see in the museum was fabricated here. It was made here by artists, carpenters, mural painters. Everything was made in-house by people who lived in the community and lived in Milwaukee, who grew up in Wisconsin. You may have had some people that came from another state, but they made Wisconsin their home, and their craft was created here. I’m an example of that. I came from Puerto Rico, landed here at the museum, and everything I know about Milwaukee and Wisconsin I learned working with my colleagues and working in the exhibits.
The Thinc Design team from New York is a good company of good designers, but they’re obviously not from here. They even had to come and tour Wisconsin to learn about Wisconsin. How much are you going to learn in a week? And the designs, from what I’m seeing in some of the meetings, they seem to be designs by committee. I don’t think it’s a very good approach. You need to get your experts and your designers and your educators together and let them work at it. I don’t think the rest of the gang needs to be part of it. But that’s the way they’re approaching it. It’s a design by committee.
I’m sure the new museum is going to be beautiful, and the building may be also very attractive. But we’ll see what kind of longevity it will have. The longevity we created was created by people who really put their heart and soul into every little detail. We wanted to make people come back and find something. I brought my grandkids the other day, and we were walking through the exhibits and we were looking at a diorama of Africa that I had stared at many times. And my grandson says, “I spy a butterfly.” And I was like, what? I never really noticed that there were butterflies in that particular diorama. So I started looking, and sure enough, there are several butterflies in the grasses.
The belief right now is that dioramas are things of the past and things that no one really cares about anymore. I totally disagree with that view. I think you can make dioramas today as exciting as any TV monitor with a video on it. The whole idea of the diorama is that you can lose yourself in it. You’re looking at something that’s still, it’s not moving, but nonetheless your mind takes you into that place. You can hear the wind blowing. You can see things on the horizon and you can see the animals and you can start picking up these little details. You lose yourself. That’s the whole thing about it. You lose yourself in that environment.
MR: Do you have any knowledge of the things the museum will take with it going forward?
EB: That’s definitely the discussion right now because the new building will be smaller. Even the storage will have to be in a totally different building. So we really don’t know how they’re planning to do that. What are they going to bring over? They haven’t said anything. I really don’t know what they’re going to bring over.
We have props that have been made by very famous companies in years past that are now considered almost like artifacts. For example, we have a Maya stele that’s made out of plaster. But that Maya stele was created by molds that were put on an actual stele in Mexico, and that mold was brought back to the U.S. There are only a few museums in the United States that have these stelae still around. I think there’s maybe four or five of them, and we have one of them. What are they going to do with our stele? Who knows? Is it going to be displayed? Is there room for it?
We have taxidermy animals that were mounted by Carl Akeley. Carl Akeley is the father of taxidermy. Are we going to be able to display these animals? There’s a big question mark behind all that. You could move a diorama, but it’s very expensive, especially since our dioramas are so large. You’d have to cut them in pieces to be able to take the backgrounds with you. But there’s no reason that you couldn’t recreate a diorama. There weren’t dioramas in the old museum when it was at the library. When the museum moved to this location, they basically built new domes, and the artists came in and they recreated the murals. So you could redo the dioramas and you could create new ones. You don’t even have to create exactly the ones we have, but you could create similar ones or new ones. It is doable. Whether they’re going to do that with the exhibit space that they’re going to have, which is one-third of what we have today, I don’t know.
MR: Beyond being a longtime employee, what has the museum meant to you as a Milwaukeean?
EB: Like I mentioned before, I grew up in Puerto Rico, so everything I know about Milwaukee I learned here at the museum. I can tell you that this was probably the best job ever. I think I was very fortunate to have landed here and to have worked here. Out of all the jobs that people can do, I feel very lucky to have had this experience. I was able to go on excursions to Costa Rica, go on dinosaur digs in Montana. I was able to travel to different parts of Wisconsin to collect plant materials and collect insects for the dioramas and our exhibits. I was able to travel to other parts of the world for exhibits that were coming here.
I feel very fortunate, too, as Hispanic. I’m the only minority that has ever worked in this department. There were maybe a couple other Hispanics in things like accounting, and probably some African-American folks who worked in marketing and other departments. But in the exhibit department, I was the only minority and Hispanic that worked here. So thanks to that I was able to bring two exhibits here. I brought “Contrast: 40 Years of Change and Continuity in Puerto Rico,” which was the photographs of Jack Delano. That was my project, and I raised the money for it. I also was able to be the advocate for the “Chicano Now” exhibit when that came here. That was an exhibit that was very well received by the Hispanic community. You know, there were kids from all the Hispanic schools coming here to see those exhibits. So I’m very proud of that, that I was able to bring a little slice of our cultural heritage to Milwaukee.
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