Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Public Museum, Betty Brinn to Share New Facility

Not a merger but housing natural history and children's museums in one brand new facility.

By - Sep 2nd, 2020 11:05 am
Milwaukee Public Museum. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee Public Museum’s current home. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Two of Milwaukee’s highest-profile cultural institutions are moving in together.

The Milwaukee Public Museum and Betty Brinn Children’s Museum are not merging, but both are looking for new homes and their respective boards have now okayed a proposal for leadership to explore putting those homes under the same roof.

“While the details of the alliance between MPM and BBCM remain to be ironed out, this marks the first critical step in what will be a years-long process to create a space where our community can enjoy two world-class museums under one roof,” said Ellen Censky, MPM President & CEO.

MPM has been pursuing a new home for almost five years and has narrowed it to a single downtown location, but during an interview Censky declined to say exactly where.

Wherever it is, it’s not likely to open quickly. A best-case scenario would have the new building open in late 2025 or early 2026. “This is a long project, this is not a simple project,” said MPM’s CEO.

The Public Museum will occupy the majority of the new building, with BBCM getting its first purpose-built home. “We have been shoehorned in what was a county parks pavilion for 25 years,” said BBCM Executive Director Brian King. BBCM is currently located in the Miller Pavilion at O’Donnell Park, 929 E. Wisconsin Ave.

Censky and King said the partnership is a good fit for both the organizations and Milwaukee. “I like to look beyond who we are and look at what’s best for the community,” said Censky. King said he believes organizations working together is what Milwaukee’s philanthropic community wants to see.

“The synergies you have under one roof you may not have when separated,” said Censky. But there are no firm plans on exactly what those are from a design perspective. Censky said each organization will maintain its own distinct brand, but beyond that there are plenty of options. “We have time to work that out,” she said. “This is not something we announce and then we move in together.”

King said putting a children’s museum alongside the natural history museum has inherit programming advantages. Families can struggle to entertain children with a range of ages, or even adults, at either facility today. Putting the two next to each other will allow a single visit to engage the whole family.

The children’s museum serves as a good partner said King. “As partners go, we are not complicated,” he said, noting that the organization could make a rectangular airplane hanger work for its needs. “What is really important for us is we have a space that allows us to reinvent the experience as time goes on.” He said that’s been difficult to do with the oddly-shaped space the children’s museum currently occupies.

The organizations have yet to hire an architecture firm to draft plans. “We are doing due diligence on a site,” said Censky.

Being housed alongside another institution is nothing new for the Public Museum. It was located on the upper floors of the Milwaukee Public Library‘s Central Library, a facility originally built for both organizations to share, until the 1960s. More recently Discovery World operated in the eastern half of MPM’s W. Wells St. facility before decamping for its own lakefront digs approximately 15 years ago.

What about the late 2018 UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning design studio that envisioned a museum campus for the two institutions next to the Marcus Performing Arts Center? “I think they learned more from it then we did,” said Censky. “I don’t think that had any relevance to what we are talking about.” She said the plans didn’t reflect a true partnership between the organizations. Earlier in 2018 MPM released conceptual plans for a $150 million, stand-alone facility on a generic site.

The organizations declined to provide an estimated cost for the new facility on Wednesday.

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3 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Public Museum, Betty Brinn to Share New Facility”

  1. just1paul says:

    I agree that combining the facilities is a good idea, but I think the public needs to have input as to location and some of the design. In the Journal Sentinel one of the design ideas was shown and but I believe needs to be seriously rethought in that we lose 1/2 of Juneau Park and end up with buildings right along that part of Wisconsin/Prospect Aves.

  2. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @just1paul – Anything that requires a zoning change or using any public land would require a vote of the proper legislative body, so there would be public comment at that point.

    We deliberately didn’t use any of the conceptual renderings from 2018 to avoid confusion.

    You can see a little more about the design concepts (minus the videos MPM appears to have pulled down) here –

  3. just1paul says:

    @Jeramey Jannene – Thank You.

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