Christopher Hillard
Op Ed

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.

By - Dec 14th, 2021 01:14 pm
Milwaukee Public Museum. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee Public Museum. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

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:

First: What is the plan for the museum’s collections? As most of us are aware, what is currently on display is only a fraction of the museum’s total collections. One of the main arguments in favor of the move is the dismal state of the museum’s storage facilities. The new facility will be approximately half the size of the current building, and while there are plans for a separate storage facility, it is still worth asking: will MPM be moving the entirety of the collection to the new facilities or will they be deaccessioning (getting rid of) portions of it? These objects belong to us, and that is not a poetic turn of phrase but the literal truth, so it is fair to ask what MPM intends to do with them. The museum’s curatorial staff has shrunk to a shadow of what it once was. Al Muchka, the former curator of History, is the latest such casualty. Without a curator of History, what will become of the museum’s artifacts like those from the Mediterranean and the Near East? Artifacts like the museum’s extensive collection of pottery from Tell Hadidi? In the 1970’s, back when the museum still had the resources to mount expeditions, it assisted in excavating this Bronze Age site, a site that was subsequently destroyed by the Islamic State. Are these objects to remain here, or have they been rendered redundant as the museum moves in a new direction?

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.

I won’t lie, I am not an impartial observer. I love the current museum, and obviously part of that is nostalgia. As a child, I spent countless rainy afternoons roaming its halls. My wife and I had our second date at the museum, and less than two years later, we were married there. A lump forms in my throat when I confront the reality that, in the near future, the only way I’ll be able to visit those spaces will be in my mind. That said, I am not blind to the current museum’s shortcomings. On the contrary; I mourn them. The museum’s sad, agonizing, decades-long decline is evident to even the casual observer. From the dusty displays to buckets catching water from a leaking roof to dioramas with moving parts that rusted in place years ago, the institution has clearly seen better days.

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.

4 thoughts on “Op Ed: Public Museum Must Give Full Accounting”

  1. sbaldwin001 says:

    Like the author, I hope a public display of the plans, including an opportunity for the public to comment, will be part of the design process. I understand that the museum is currently conducting focus groups, although I do not know who or how participants were selected. At the end of October, I spoke with a planetarium staff member who said all they knew was that the new museum would include a planetarium. I hope staff scientists and other staff members are included in the design process to some extent.

  2. 45 years in the City says:

    I lost faith in this institution following the financial fiasco, caused in part by a do-nothing board substantially comprised of corporate types who merely wanted to give the illusion of public service.

    Regretfully, little has been done in the intervening years to restore my faith. As the op-ed writer points out, MPM has become less of a research, teaching, and curatorial institution and more of an amusement.

  3. CraigR says:

    In an environment where local governments are about to head over a financial cliff, I think MPM should instead think about spending money on an appropriate storage facility and look for the existing building to be properly maintained. I’d hate to see it reincarnated as a slicker, much smaller, attraction. What exhibits will they eliminate?

  4. TransitRider says:

    I’m old enough to remember back when the Museum shared space with the Library on Wisconsin Avenue. The current building still hadn’t been built.

    It’s really a shame how much the Museum has gone downhill in my lifetime.

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