Worried About Milwaukee Public Museum
It’s a great institution. But will it still be great — or shrunken — after it moves?
I am worried about the Milwaukee Public Museum.
I’m worried because with minimal public input the decision was made that the current museum is no longer viable. This worries me for a couple of reasons. The first is the current museum belongs to us, the residents of Milwaukee County. This is our building, and it seems like we’ve had no meaningful say over its future. The second reason this worries me is the current museum is not without merit. It was designed very thoughtfully, particularly the layouts of the second and third floors. They were designed to meander, and even, to a certain extent, disorient. Even longtime visitors can find themselves forgetting what collection is waiting for them just around the bend. It is filled with nooks and crannies that provide a sense of delight that is frankly lacking in modern museums, which seem designed to lead the visitor by the nose through large, open halls, where there isn’t the possibility for random discovery.
But maybe it is necessary for the museum to move, because I am also worried about the museum’s collections, which have not been adequately stored or cared for due to decades of deferred maintenance (our fault, or perhaps more charitably, the result of the county’s absurdly constrained revenue structure). It breaks my heart to see buckets in front of the Ainu exhibit and in the Japanese tea garden, almost as much as it breaks my heart to think about water slowly destroying artifacts like our unique collection of WPA textiles. The museum is also no stranger to moves; the current building on Wells Street is its fourth home. It is arguable that the museum improved with each move, expanding in size and scope and level of sophistication. And yet, I am worried that this new move may be the end of this trend.
How can we be on the precipice of casting aside these public treasures with no meaningful public discussion? How have we permitted ourselves to be essentially locked out of these momentous decisions? How can it be that this transformation has been framed as an inevitability, rather than a proposal? It’s not just what might be lost that worries me, it is also what might be excluded. Most of the discussion around the new museum has focused on downsizing and refocusing the collection. This worries me immensely, because I believe that if you asked any resident who has visited the museum about what makes them remember it so fondly, you would find that its scope and diversity is its strength. It is the heart of the thing. It is what makes it a beloved institution. I have never once heard a visitor to the museum complain about being able to walk from The Streets of Old Milwaukee to a Costa Rican Rainforest with a pitstop at Hell Creek during the Cretaceous period in between.
MPM is Wisconsin’s Museum. Nothing else in the state compares. So why, with this once-in-a-generation opportunity, would we opt to bring less of the world to Wisconsin? Very few of us will get to travel to Africa and India and the depths of the ocean. The museum is the closest many of us will get. It is wrong to deprive future generations of the opportunities we’ve taken for granted for almost six decades. Why should we even consider limiting our scope and ambition? When the Art Museum built its iconic addition, did it shirk its collection? Did it display less for the public? When Discovery World moved to its new location, did it limit its vision? In both cases the answer is a resounding “NO!” Why should our Museum be any different?
The Milwaukee Public Museum is ours in every meaningful sense. The collections are ours, the dioramas and displays are ours, and its legacy as a scientific institution is ours. What happens to our Museum should be in our hands. If we truly value the Museum with the depth of feeling that I believe so many of us do, then we can do better. We can preserve our local scientific and artistic heritage. We can keep the scope of the museum broad and engaging, and we can dare to reach even further, and bring the same ambition that has defined the institution since 1882.
So I am beseeching you, as fellow citizens and museum patrons, do not sit idly by. Make your opinions known. Write to the administration of MPM Inc., write to your local state representative and County Supervisor. Make noise. This museum belongs to us, so let’s make our desires known.”
Conceptual Designs For a New Museum
More about the Milwaukee Public Museum's Big Plans
- Op Ed: Public Museum Hasn’t Moved Yet - Katie Sanders - Mar 11th, 2020
- Op Ed: Worried About Milwaukee Public Museum - Christopher Hillard - Feb 25th, 2020
- Public Museum Could Lose Accreditation - Corri Hess - Aug 22nd, 2019
- Plats and Parcels: The Public Museum’s Big Plans - Graham Kilmer - Jul 29th, 2018