Graham Kilmer

New Public Museum Design Unveiled

New, five-story museum inspired by state's natural bluffs and waters.

By - Jul 18th, 2022 01:51 pm

Rendering of new museum viewed from the west side of N. 6th St.

The design for the new natural history museum downtown, to replace the Milwaukee Public Museum, was unveiled Monday.

“This building will stand proudly as a new gateway into downtown Milwaukee,” said Ellen Censky, president and CEO of MPM Inc., the non-profit that operates the public museum, “and as an iconic landmark for the Haymarket neighborhood.”

The new $240 million museum at the corner of N. 6th St. and W. McKinley Ave. will be five stories and 200,000 square feet, with a design inspired by the natural history and geography of Wisconsin and Milwaukee. Specifically, it was inspired by Mill Bluff in Mill Bluff State Park.

“You can make an iconic building by throwing something shocking on 6th and McKinley, but that wouldn’t be good enough for what we were hearing,” said Todd Schliemann, of Ennead Architects, “We need to bring meaning to the icon, it needed to be of this place.”

Schliemann explained that water, and how it has influenced the natural features and history of Wisconsin, greatly influenced the design of the new building. The design is meant to resemble a feature that has been carved and shaped by water and erosion. And the ground floor of the new museum will be based on the convergence of three pathways, much like the way Milwaukee sits at the convergence of three rivers.

The new museum will also feature what the architects are calling the “light well” at the center of the building. Jarrett Pelletier of Kahler Slater explained that natural history museums don’t typically have much natural light, in order to protect the sensitive collections. So, the light well, a five-story, multi-level space at the base of the building will offer a view into every floor of the building and let in enormous natural light to the ground floor commons.

The design process was a collaborative one, Censky said. Landscape architects from GGN, architects from Thinc Design, and construction contractors Mortenson and ALLCON all contributed to the final museum design.

Censky and the design team noted that the directive for the project was to develop an “iconic building.” This was something that came up numerous times during the public engagement process, Censky said. “We are creating a new wonder for Wisconsin,” she said. “A world class, must-visit museum that’s alive with the wonder around us, and that unleashes the wonder within us.”

Largest Cultural Project in State History

Censky said the new museum, which will likely be called the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture, “is so much more than just a building. It’s about the generational impact that we can make together for Milwaukee, for Wisconsin and frankly for the world.”

Censky said MPM estimates that the first decade of the new museum will see more than 5 million visitors, including more than 1 million school children.

“This is the largest cultural project in the state’s history,” she said.

“The four million objects and specimens represent a library of life of this planet,” she said. “They come from every county in Wisconsin, from states across this country, from countries around the world, and even a few of them come from deep in our universe.”

These collections were the prime mover for the entire project. The current museum, at 800 W. Wells St., opened in the 1960s and is in such a state of disrepair that it is imperiling the collections. The museum’s re-accreditation was put on hold in 2021 by the American Alliance of Museums until it had secured the safety and preservation of the collections threatened by the poor condition of the current museum.

MPM Inc. officials have said that building a new facility that would safely maintain the collections became critical to accreditation, without which the public museum would have lost exhibits and entered a death spiral likely ending in its closure.

A significant portion of the collections will be stored within public view at the new museum, and another 50,000-square-foot building will be constructed to house the rest.

Public Capital Campaign Begins

Along with the unveiling the design, MPM Inc. announced the official beginning of a public capital campaign.

The state has already contributed $40 million toward the project, and Milwaukee County has authorized another $45 million for it. On top of that $85 million in public funding, private donors gave another $25 million during the ‘quiet’ phase of the capital campaign for the $240 million museum.

“The initial public funding that’s invested by the county and the state have put us on a path to success,” Censky said, “but only private philanthropy can drive that project forward and put us across the finish line.”

Jay Williams, who is co-chairing the capital campaign along with his wife Madonna, said that the public funding and 72 “cornerstone donors,” including every member of the MPM Board, have gotten the project to $110 million, which is “almost halfway to the $240 million goal.”


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3 thoughts on “New Public Museum Design Unveiled”

  1. Polaris says:

    I consider myself pretty hard to please but I have to say I am very, very pleased with this design.

    The view off the freeway into downtown is already pretty impressive to me. This will be a welcome element that further defines that gateway while also announcing itself quite handsomely. It splendidly evokes the geography of Wisconsin. And, while I don’t believe it was meant to riff off of Wisconsin native son Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim in NYC, it kind of does in a completely coincidental way. I can also see “Ws” in the design, most notably when looking at the building from any street side (building walls and shadows) and also very subtly if the shadows created by the ribbing are right and you cock your head 90 degrees.

    I agree with the architect that the place requires something bold and unique without going crazy. They really did a brilliant job walking that line.

    Is it iconic? Not yet. An icon represents something else—like the Eiffel Tower represents Paris or the Empire State Building represents NYC. Milwaukee’s current building icons are City Hall and the Calatrava. Time will tell if the new museum building becomes iconic (of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, or something else) but I’d have to say it is definitely in the running. Bravo!

  2. tornado75 says:

    i like ir.

  3. Joseph Wiesner says:

    Polaris – well put. First reaction was WTH, but I quickly changed my mind.

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