Yesterday’s Milwaukee

Public Museum Exhibits, 1880s

The museum would move 12 years later, saving it from the exposition building's disastrous fire of 1905.

By - Sep 1st, 2015 11:11 am
Public Museum Exhibit, 1880s. Image courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

Public Museum Exhibit, 1880s. Image courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

The new Milwaukee Industrial Exposition Building was a large one. Completed in 1881-1882 it covered the entire block bounded by 5th and 6th St. and what today is Kilbourn and State. In 1884 the building would add a most unusual tenant – the Milwaukee Public Museum. In fact this would be its first official location.

The public museum actually had private origins, as a collection of specimens that began to be gathered at the German-English Academy in the 1850s. But the collection, as part of a school, was very public oriented, and in 1882 it was taken over by the City of Milwaukee. More space was sorely needed for the collection, so the city chose the exposition building as the proper site for what was eventually called the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Here are two examples of stereoviews photographed by H.H. Bennett in the mid-1880s. The museum’s collection at that time ranged from birds and insects as well as fossils and taxidermy of all kinds. African animals were a great novelty at that time.

In 1898 the museum would find a new home in the new Public Library building. This location would last until 1963 when it would relocate again to its current location. The library years were marked by the installation of some fine Northwest Native-American totem poles outside near the building’s entrance. The chosen location was likely influenced by the fact that the exposition building had been totally destroyed in a massive 1905 fire. Had the collection still been located there, it might have been entirely lost.

The city would finance and run the museum until it was taken over by Milwaukee County in 1976. Today it is a private public partnership which still gets some county funding.

Jeff Beutner is a collector of photographs, postcards and stereoviews of old Milwaukee. This column features these images, with historical commentary by Beutner.

Public Museum Exhibit, 1880s. Image courtesy of Jeff Beutner

Public Museum Exhibit, 1880s. Image courtesy of Jeff Beutner


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