Milwaukee Public Museum‘s plans to vacate its increasingly deteriorating 60-year home at 800 W. Wells St. and build a new, drastically smaller, and dramatically different downtown museum have been known for years. But now, thanks to a recent meeting, we have a rough timeframe:
Groundbreaking in 2023. Opening in 2026.
That means, if all things keep clipping along, we have roughly four years left to enjoy the Milwaukee Public Museum as we know it, and as multiple generations have known it. Four more years. Four more years if we’re lucky. Mash those snake buttons now, folks.
Let’s back up for everyone exclaiming “WHAT???!!!” Yes, MPM is moving. The impending move to a brand new facility was first announced in 2017. Two years later, following the appointment of a new president and CEO, Dr. Ellen J. Censky, things started to pick up speed. “It’s time to admit that it’s (nearly) the end of the Milwaukee Public Museum as we know it,” I wrote back in 2019. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Now for the “WHY???!!!” The old/current museum is a leaky, outdated, inefficient, too-big mess, you see, and it would cost a cool $250 million to repair it. Instead, MPM is proposing to build a new facility near Fiserv Forum that would cost $240 million. A private fundraising campaign would cover $150 million. State and federal grants would cover $45 million. Another $45 million would come from Milwaukee County. That last chunk o’ county change was recommended for approval on Tuesday by the County Board’s Finance and Parks, Energy and Environment committees. The full board will weigh in on March 24.
So what’s the big deal? A nice, non-leaky new building to house the museum’s delightful dioramas and wondrous wonders sounds good, right? (The museum’s accreditation is at stake, too.) Well, the new museum will decidedly not be the same as the old/current museum. For one, it’ll be much smaller: 230,000 square feet compared to the current 480,000 square feet. Exhibit space will total 80,000 square feet. This “right-sized” museum will share space with the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, and its overall theme and design will be handled by a New York-based firm called Thinc Design.
Oh, and it won’t be called the Milwaukee Public Museum anymore. It’ll be the “Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture.” There may be an MPM portion of the museum that will feature the “Milwaukee County Collections,” however.
About those collections. Here’s what MPM has to say about what will stay and what will go:
MPM has been cutting-edge at many times in our history. As we envision a new museum, we will continue to be cutting-edge in our design of exhibits, but we will always be immersive and objects-based. Technology will be an important tool to ensure the exhibits are updated, relevant, and accessible, enhancing the experience MPM visitors expect.
We will honor the legacy of the current Museum and some aspects of the exhibits will be familiar, but we have the opportunity to reimagine the museum experience and design a natural history museum to serve future generations of learners, just as our predecessors did when building this Museum for us.
We are in the early phases of exhibit design. As part of this process, we are engaging our community to help guide the storylines that future exhibits will explore. Email us at [email protected] to share your feedback. We do know that there will be a Planetarium and butterfly garden in the future museum!
That sounds…nice? But wait! What about this part:
In addition, while the new building may be smaller than the current building, there will be more space dedicated to the exhibits in the new building. This is in part because the architects and designers are laying out the floorplans more efficiently than how the current building is laid out.
That sounds…pretty great? More efficient floorplans that will maximize the amount of exhibit space? And yet that’s precisely the thing I’m dreading the most about the new museum. Not the new exhibits, not the lack of old exhibits, not even the likely glut of touchscreens that folks will absently poke at. No, I’m dreading the efficiency. I’m dreading the loss of the current museum’s glorious, singular, and endlessly fascinating inefficiency.
I love the Milwaukee Public Museum. In the last five years alone, my kid and I have been to MPM nearly two dozen times. A few of those trips have been all-day excursions, but most have been one- or two-hour visits. Just checking out the latest traveling exhibit. Just checking out what’s on the third floor. Just chilling in the butterfly room. Growing up in a small town an hour north of here, my early trips to MPM were once-a-year extravaganzas on par with trips to the Dells or Six Flags. I can’t tell you how wonderful it has been as an adult to simply hop on a bus, putter around the museum for 60 minutes, leave, and do it again a few weeks later. Membership is the best!
But what I truly love about MPM is all that space. Here’s how I put it back in 2019:
Personally speaking, the Milwaukee Public Museum’s ridiculous size is one of its biggest draws. The wide, winding, darkened hallways. The multi-level exhibits that are less exhibits and more pocket universes (think the rainforest habitat or the Streets of Old Milwaukee). The life-sized dioramas. The feeling of space, of exploration, of mystery. MPM may have millions upon millions of artifacts in its collection, but its most impressive artifact (in my opinion) is itself.
A quick story: Over the weekend, I took my kid to see the new “Tyrannosaurs: Meet The Family” traveling exhibit, on display through May 18. It was pretty awesome! Nearly a dozen life-sized T-Rex skeletons filled the rooms, each posed more dramatically than the last. Tons of T-Rex skulls, bones, and talons were on display. There was a rendering of a T-Rex heart! And nearly everyone—parents and kids, and my kid included—spent the majority of their time absently poking at the exhibit’s various touchscreens. Walk directly to one screen, poke at it for 10 seconds, move on to the next screen. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I try not to be a “screen snob,” but woof, it was incredibly deflating watching so many people IGNORING THE GIANT T-REX SKELETONS LOOMING ABOVE THEM in favor of poking at touchscreens. Look! Some text no one will ever read just moved! Neat! (Even funnier: overly complicated touchscreen games that absolutely no one bothers to figure out.) My kid grew bored in about 10 minutes.
Compare that to the numerous times we’ve spent HOURS in the museum proper. Entire afternoons have melted away by simply wandering down darkened hallways and gazing into oversized dioramas dominated by empty, beautiful sky. You can spend an hour in the Streets of Old Milwaukee alone, walking down winding cobblestone pathways and peeking into those not-quite-life-sized houses. I’m guessing the traveling T-Rex exhibit is 1,000% more scientifically accurate than MPM’s beloved “T-Rex taking a bite out of a triceratops” room, but that room is great, isn’t it? It’s an entire room! In that room and others, boredom is never a problem.
I want to make it clear that I understand. I Get It. I know that the museum has to change, that it has to adapt, that it has to get with the times or die. It doesn’t take a cultural studies professor to see that many of MPM’s exhibits are in dire need of updates. (It’s funny that this is always played as a final “Gotcha!” card by those arguing for an entirely new museum—as if re-thinking and updating current exhibits is impossible.) I also want to make it clear that I’m not bemoaning the loss of the museum because of rose-colored nostalgia. I’m bemoaning it for a very specific, very concrete reason.
I have no doubt the new museum will be very, very nice. It’ll be a state-of-the-art, thoughtfully presented, scientifically accurate, and culturally rich modern museum. Sure, there’ll probably be a bunch of screens, but there’ll also be oodles of artifacts and exhibits and hands-on gadgets that will please everyone. It’ll have another snake button. It’ll have everything 21st century museumgoers demand, and maybe even a little more.
But what it won’t have—what it simply can’t have by design—is that space. Those darkened hallways. Those endless streets. Those nooks and crannies. Those baffling dead ends. For me, that’s the loss that will sting the most: not the individual exhibits or even the memories of past visits, but the sense of mystery and discovery that the building itself possesses. Can you preserve even some of that in a dedicated “Milwaukee County Collection”? I doubt it.
Maybe there’s a silver lining. Maybe it’s a gift that we know with near-certainly that the Milwaukee Public Museum isn’t long for this world. We know we still have time to enjoy it, to soak in the sights and sounds. We know we still have time to explore it, to find things we never found or things we forgot. We know we still have time to get lost in it.
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