Graham Kilmer

Museum Won’t Preserve ‘Streets of Old Milwaukee’

But new museum will have 'highly immersive exhibit' exploring city's history, cultures.

By - Jan 10th, 2023 03:49 pm
Rendering of new museum viewed from the west side of N. 6th St. Rendering by Kahler Slater.

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

The non-profit that operates the Milwaukee Public Museum confirmed in a statement Tuesday that the beloved museum exhibit Streets of Old Milwaukee will not survive the move to the new museum — at least not as it exists now.

MPM Inc. is in the midst of developing a new $240 million museum at the intersection of N. 6th St. and W. McKinley Ave. that will replace the Milwaukee Public Museum at 800 W. Wells St. The new, five-story, 200,000-square-foot building is critical to the museum’s survival, MPM officials have said, because it ensures the institution maintains its accreditation. The current public museum building has been in a state of disrepair for approximately a decade, threatening the collections stored there.

On Friday, Jan. 6, the museum reposted an interview published by Milwaukee Magazine with Dr. Ellen Censky, executive director of MPM Inc., the non-profit that operates the museum, in which Censky said, “Our goal is that when you walk into that new museum, you will feel that you’re in a familiar space, but that you’re also in a very refreshed space. So entire exhibits will not move over, but elements will.”

When asked by a commenter about the fate of the Streets of Old Milwaukee, the museum responded by reiterating Censky’s statement that “Entire exhibits won’t be moving over.”

The quote came as a shock — one registered on social media channels — and comments underneath the Facebook post illustrate this, with dozens pleading with the museum to preserve the Streets of Old Milwaukee.

Initially, the museum said, “We can’t do justice to the hard work of our design team by announcing anything big in our Facebook comments. Big announcements about the Future Museum’s exhibits are coming soon enough, and we’re genuinely excited about it.” But now it’s offering a few more details about what’s in store for beloved museum exhibits.

The new statement from the museum said Censky’s quote “fueled a lot of speculation about the Future Museum,” but confirmed that the Streets of Old Milwaukee is one of the exhibits that will be affected by the move.

“Let’s first address our recent statement that ‘entire exhibits won’t be moving over’ to the Future Museum. What does that mean? Most of our exhibits, like the Streets of Old Milwaukee, have elements that are built into the current facility,” the statement says. “Deconstructing those in a way that won’t damage them and using those exact same materials to reconstruct them in a differently-shaped building would be nearly impossible, not to mention excessively expensive and time-consuming.”

The new museum will not recreate the Streets of Old Milwaukee like the exhibit in the current museum. But there will be “a highly-immersive walkthrough of Milwaukee that explores our marvelous city’s history, nature and cultures,” MPM said, adding, “It will not be called ‘Streets of Old Milwaukee’ as all exhibits are getting new names.”

The museum itself will also have a new name. It’s expected to be called the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture. A new legal entity with that name has been created to operate the museum. But for now, MPM Inc. has resorted to calling it the “Future Museum.”

The museum said it is planning “new built-ins that create the same immersive, engaging experience you know and love at MPM.”

MPM Inc. is in charge of preserving and maintaining the museum collections, which are owned by Milwaukee County, and include some four million items. “There are millions of objects and specimens behind the scenes that have never been on display before,” the museum said. “We think it’s time to share some of those with you, and maybe even have some objects on rotation so you are exposed to new collections items throughout your visits.”

The current museum opened in 1962, and MPM said the exhibits were designed and built “one-by-one over a period of years.” Some were still being transferred from the prior space over a period of several years. Whereas all the new museum’s exhibits are being designed right now.

“That takes an extraordinary amount of thought, time and coordination from our curators, collections managers, exhibit artists and architects. What we’ll show you in spring is a generous peek at which galleries we’ll have and what some of them will look like.”

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4 thoughts on “Museum Won’t Preserve ‘Streets of Old Milwaukee’”

  1. GodzillakingMKE says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if someone buys it and puts it in there brewery. Pabst should buy it. Central waters?

  2. Polaris says:

    I think it’s more than fair not to expect that whole exhibits will simply be relocated to a new museum building. Milwaukee is getting a new museum!

    I absolutely love my memories of the “Streets of Old Milwaukee.” Hey, I was a working-class white kid who was three years old when the “Streets” opened. It’s a romantic—even sentimental—version of 1890s Milwaukee that never really existed. I never walked through it wondering where the Black people were. I never questioned it’s emphasis on commercial Milwaukee. I was never confronted with images of poverty, crime, illness or other problems. Old Milwaukee seemed like a dream, and it was!

    Want a dream? See a movie. Want to be enlightened and challenged? Go to a museum.

    The Public Library posted an article seven or so years ago talking about revisiting the Streets and the fact that it is more accurately a reflection of the city in the 1960s when the exhibit was created that it is of the city in the late 1890s.

    I’m excited to see what the new Streets will be like!

  3. kaygeeret says:

    I wholeheartedly agree Polaris.

    I first saw The Streets… as a kid when it first opened and thought it was magic.

    I last saw it as an adult in the 90’s and thought it was static and not particularly informative or interesting.

    Can’t wait for the new interpretation of Streets and indeed the entire new museum.

  4. Marty Ellenbecker says:

    The exterior is OK, but…
    Every building has a certain amount of its space/volume devoted to utilities, functions, services, safety and amenities. The generous corner roundings have cut into available exhibit space.

    Wish I had taken note of this unveiling earlier.

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