Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

About The Public Museum’s Name Change

Changing to a “Wisconsin” museum may be a key to its survival.

By - Mar 22nd, 2022 11:53 am
A conceptual design for the Milwaukee Public Museum back plaza. Rendering by Rinka Chung Architecture.

A conceptual design for the Milwaukee Public Museum back plaza. Rendering by Rinka Chung Architecture.

Milwaukee County officials were all smiles yesterday as they signed a deal to provide $45 million in funding for a new facility planned by the Milwaukee Public Museum. But as Urban Milwaukee reported, the ceremony came only after a county board meeting where most supervisors were miffed at the museum’s plan to drop “public” from its name even as it asked for so much public funding.

While the museum’s leaders haven’t decided for certain, they are considering renaming the institution as the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture and it seems clear that “Wisconsin” will definitely be part of the name. Behind that change is a long history of funding difficulties for Milwaukee cultural institutions that are the state leaders in their field yet get little state funding.

The Milwaukee Public Museum was actually a city institution for most of its history, from 1882 to 1976, nearly a century. The switch to county control, pushed by then Mayor Henry Maier, recognized the fact that much of its audience came from beyond the city. But the museum’s time as a county institution was short-lived. The museum had always offered free admission but was pushed by county board members to offer an ever higher admission price to reduce the cost for taxpayers. By the mid-1980s the board was insisting the museum cut expenses or raise more private donations. And in December 1991, the county board approved a proposal to “privatize” the Public Museum. The county would provide a basic level of support and retain ownership of the museum building and its collections, but most of the operating expenses would be raised through private donations.

By then the audience for the museum didn’t just come from beyond the city, but from beyond the county, a trend which continued to grow. By 2013, as Urban Milwaukee reported, just 44% of the museums patrons came from Milwaukee County, with the rest coming mostly from other areas of Wisconsin, particularly Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington and Racine counties.

The Public Museum is the state’s preeminent natural history museum, with a longtime state-wide identity. “We have visitors from every county in the state,” as Ellen Censky, the Public Museum’s president and CEO, noted in a recent interview with Urban Milwaukee. “We have collections from every county in the state. And schools in 44 of the state’s 72 counties send kids here on field trips.”

The MPM has a national reputation for its innovative style of presenting exhibits, but it’s worth noting that many other Milwaukee institutions are state leaders with a national reputation. The Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Ballet, Florentine Opera Company and Milwaukee Repertory Theater are all state leaders in their field that have won national attention and also draw fans from well beyond Milwaukee.

As Urban Milwaukee reported in 2013, the percentage of patrons from beyond the county was 57% for the county zoo, 55% to 65% for the art museum and 60% for the Marcus Center, home of the Milwaukee Ballet and Florentine, and presenter of touring Broadway shows. The Milwaukee Symphony’s analysis of ticket buyers found it drew heavily from six zip codes in Waukesha and Ozaukee counties, from Mequon, Thiensville, Brookfield, Menomonee Falls, Pewaukee, New Berlin and Elm Grove. It also had many attendees from Racine County

In recognition of the fact that these organizations drew heavily from the four-county metro region and beyond, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce did a study of a regional tax to support these institutions nearly a decade ago, but eventually gave up the effort. Surrounding counties had no interest in such a tax.

Nor has the state offered much support for Wisconsin’s leading cultural entities in Milwaukee. The Wisconsin Arts Board long ranked as the smallest, in per capita funding in the nation, but in recent years a few states have lowered the bar even further and Wisconsin now ranks 47th.

In the past groups like the Rep, MSO and Florentine have paid more to the state in sales taxes than they have gotten back in arts board funding. As small as the state arts board is, it has been even more insignificant for Milwaukee because it has never gotten its fair share of that small pie, when judged by its art groups’ budgets, employment or artistic quality.

Such was the situation the Milwaukee Public Museum faced when it set out to get state funding for its new $240 million building. Censky says the museum got immediate support from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and then worked to get backing from the mostly Republican members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee and state Building Commission, including some 20 to 30 legislators.

One thing that helped greatly, Censky says, is that nearly every legislator remembered coming there as a child on a school tour. But Censky also pointed to the Legislature’s pledge to provide $70 million in funding for the Wisconsin History Museum, based in Madison with other historical facilities throughout the state. It is also a state institution. Did Censky push the idea that Milwaukee’s museum would take on a state name? Some county board members believe this was a requirement for state funding.

Censky offers a diplomatic response when asked about this. “While the state recognizes the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture as the legal entity that will own and operate the new museum, there is no stipulation for the name on the building.”

Censky seems to be suggesting the nonprofit entity that runs the museum might have a different name than the museum, but its leaders would be foolish not to use Wisconsin in the name of the museum itself. For it truly is an institution with a state-wide impact.

Board members, as Graham Kilmer reported for Urban Milwaukee, complained about dropping “public” from the name, given that the county will still be providing some support. After all, supervisors noted, the county owns the museum’s current building and its entire collection of some four million objects.

But if any politicians have a right to be miffed, it would be city officials. City of Milwaukee taxpayers paid for the entire cost of the current museum building, which opened in the 1960s, and most of the collection was built during the 94 years the city owned the museum. The county owned the museum for just 15 years before privatizing it.

And while the county has continued to provide some support, that will be slashed from $3.5 million to $1 million per year, a payment intended to maintain the collection, under the new deal. The county will also have to spend an estimated $1.5 million per year to maintain the old building, while the museum finishes transferring the collection from the old to the new building, which is expected to break ground in late 2023 and open by 2026.

Natural history museums across the county often get state support and rarely have “public” in their name. The Public Museum name, moreover, leaves people knowing nothing about what kind of museum it is, Censky notes, while the Milwaukee Art Museum is immediately recognizable for what it does.

If it takes a change of name to “Wisconsin” to lower the cost of the museum for county taxpayers, I suspect many might support the idea. Indeed, they might support a similar name change for other institutions with significant county support, like the zoo and art museum.

Note to East Siders: I will be moderating a candidate forum for the Milwaukee County Board Third District race between incumbent supervisor Sheldon Wasserman and challenger Eric Rorholm that will take place Tuesday evening. More details here.

2 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: About The Public Museum’s Name Change”

  1. Francis Reich says:

    The idea of relinquishing “Milwaukee” in the name is offensive, really. This is a city institution with a storied local tradition; it’s never had anything to do with the state (beyond what’s in its collections). Is the implication that nothing that says “Milwaukee” will draw people from outside the county, or that only a “Wisconsin”-branded venue merits statewide interest? This just buys into the fallacy, promoted by the same outstate politicians who redirect millions in shared revenue away from Milwaukee, that the state’s economic and cultural epicenter is no more important than, say, Oshkosh.

  2. Polaris says:

    It was the same with the convention center. Milwaukee couldn’t get state funding for expansion until a change in administration (Republican to Democratic) and it’s renaming as the Wisconsin Center. The argument that people from the rest of the state visit the Museum or that the collection comes from beyond Milwaukee proper is ridiculous.

    Republicans hate Milwaukee.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us