Public Museum Must Give Full Accounting
The public needs to know how move to a smaller facility will impact museum's collections, taxidermy and history.
As numerous headlines have trumpeted, the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM) will be moving to a new location. More accurately, we will be demolishing the current museum and building a new one. While I question the wisdom of this move, it appears that neither pandemic, nor employee layoffs and year-long furloughs is going to stop this particular train. In light of this reality, I believe there are three questions that we, as Milwaukee County residents, deserve answers to. If the site has been selected and the New York-based design team has been retained, then surely MPM Inc. can provide prompt answers to a few questions:
Secondly: What will happen to the museum’s taxidermy? The Milwaukee Public Museum has an extraordinary collection of taxidermy, in many cases finer than anything you’d find in New York or Chicago. A good deal of what makes these works compelling is the dioramas that surround them, featuring the careful work of artists like Owen J. Gromme. It is nigh-inconceivable that any of these dioramas will make the move to the new facility, however, the taxidermy itself can be moved and preserved. The question is: is that the plan? Will these works of art be used to form the foundation for new exhibits that embrace the future while preserving our collective artistic history, or have stuffed animals become passé? While some of the taxidermy will no doubt carry over, we deserve an accounting, right down to the last pine siskin, of what we stand to lose. This goes doubly for the many works of taxidermy that were done under the WPA in the 1930s, which advanced the museum’s development dramatically and are of real historical importance.
Finally: Will there be any effort to preserve the memory of the current museum? In 1982, the MPM published a history of the institution titled “A Special Style.” The title is derived from the Milwaukee Style of taxidermy developed by, among others, Carl Akeley, which elevated taxidermy to high art by placing animals in realistic poses within meticulously reconstructed habitats. This style was further advanced by open- air dioramas like the African savanna on the third floor that placed the visitor inside the scene itself. The book is long out of print, but it is a real treasure. It tells the museum’s history, with accompanying photos, from its humble beginnings at the German-English Academy, to its time in what is now the Central Library right up through the planning and creation of the current building. If we are going to lose the current museum, it seems only fitting that this book receive a second edition; one that tells the museum’s modern history and preserves in words and in photographs the careful work of its creators. With millions upon millions of dollars being spent on this new facility, surely there is room in the budget to undertake this modest project. And if not, I’m confident enough Milwaukeeans would be willing to pass the metaphorical collection plate to make it happen.
It deserved better. We deserved better.
My wife and I had our first child in April. It is unlikely he’ll ever know anything more than vague, distant memories of the current museum, and that weighs heavily on my heart. The Milwaukee Public Museum was my museum, and it was my parents’ museum, but it will never be his museum. That is a loss, no matter which way you slice it. It is my sincere hope that now, in its twilight, at the very least, we can do something to record and honor what made it so special.