Graham Kilmer

How Will Museum Move Its Collections?

Public Museum says it will take 8 years to move the 4 million items in its collections.

By - May 24th, 2023 10:32 am
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.

How will the Milwaukee Public Museum move its approximately 4 million items to its new building? It won’t be easy.

As MPM Inc., the non-profit that operates the public museum, plans and prepares for the development of its new $240 million museum at the corner of 6th and McKinley, museum officials have also begun work on the extended logistical challenge that is moving the musem’s collections.

That collection, Ellen Censky, MPM president and CEO, told the Milwaukee Rotary Club Tuesday, includes 900,000 insects; 800,000 birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles; 800,000 fossils; 300,000 plants; 220,000 cultural objects from around the world; 500,000 ancient history items, including “pots and a lot of pot shards”; and 280,000 historical objects, with “everything from clothing to furniture to toys to decorative arts, typewriters, bicycles — I like to say picture your grandmother’s attic on steroids,” she added.

It will likely take roughly eight years to inventory, pack, move, and unpack all of the items in the collections, Censky said, and will require an additional 50 staff. This work is already underway. Staff began barcoding things in 2021, and everything is expected to be moved by 2028. “There is a huge amount of planning that is taking place and will continue to take place,” Censky said.

What’s more, it’s not as simple as boxing everything up and making trips back and forth until it’s done. Some items can’t be packed with other items, because they could damage each other, others can’t be packed for too long because they need air circulation, she said. The museum didn’t want to secure off-site storage too early in the moving process, lest it be paid for and sitting empty.

“We need to move hundreds of crates out of the building and into a new building and we need to be able to stage them,” Censky said. “We have one freight elevator.”

The insurance company won’t let the museum move more than a certain value of items at any given time, and there can’t be a certain value of items in a single truck or on the road at the same time. “Thank god we’re not crossing a bridge,” Censky said, “because we can’t have two trucks on a bridge at one time.

What’s more, the museum has to try to move all these items without damaging them, “because these are irreplaceable,” Censky said.

The museum is moving to a 2.4 acre site on the southwest corner of N. 6th Street and W. McKinley Avenue. It will maintain the museum’s tradition of sitting west of the Milwaukee river, as it has for the past 140 years, Censky said. Plans for the new facility include a five-story, 20,000-square-foot building. The new exhibits and galleries are being designed by Thinc Design, a New York-based firm. The new museum should be open by late 2026 or early 2027.

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