Graham Kilmer

Museum Begins Epic Task Packing Collections

Milwaukee Public Museum must pack and transport 4 million items to new museum.

By - Feb 27th, 2024 02:51 pm

MPM staff pack ceramics for transport to new museum. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

The Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM) has begun the epic task of packing up its collections for the move to a new museum.

The museum expects it will take approximately eight years to inventory, pack and transport the 4 million or so items in its collections, as Urban Milwaukee previously reported. Staff began inventorying items in 2021. The new $240 million museum is expected to open in 2027.

The packing has begun with a collection of British ceramics from the 19th and 20th centuries. The ceramics are providing the museum an opportunity to test its packaging strategy; compared to other items, they are relatively stable and can be safely packed away in a crate for awhile.

The British ceramics represent “a drop in the bucket” compared to the total of the museum’s collections, said Sara Podejko, collections move project manager and registrar. This drop, though, includes 23,000 separate items that need to be carefully wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and archival, inert foam that will not chemically react with the items; and once wrapped the bundle is tied up with a cotton twill piece of cloth.

Tuesday morning, when local media were there to see the process up close, museum staff had recently finished packing the first crate, which they have named Crate Expectations. Weighing in at approximately 560 pounds, Crate Expectations includes some 500 items.

The crate, and many hundreds like it, will be driven to the new museum being developed at the southwest corner of N. 6th Street and W. McKinley Avenue. Others will be transported to an off-site storage facility. The museum does not plan to keep the entirety of its collections at the museum, and is searching for a storage facility to lease.

The collections, and their preservation, were a major factor in MPM pursuing a new building. The current museum, 800 W. Wells St., was built in the 1960s and as it has fallen into disrepair, the irreplaceable collections have become threatened. So threatened that a national accrediting agency refused to re-accredit the museum in 2021 until it had a plan for the longterm safety of the items entrusted to it.

While museum staff have been engaged in extensive logistical planning and inventorying, the institution’s many professional staff are stewarding the final packing process. They’ve spent their careers handling artifacts and managing documentation, and they have an intimate understanding of the museum’s collections.

The items include 900,000 insects; 800,000 birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles; 800,000 fossils; 300,000 plants; 220,000 cultural objects; 500,000 ancient history items; and 280,000 historical objects.

Anything made of organic material, like the animal specimens or even wool garments, will react more acutely to changes in temperature or relative humidity, said Jackie Schweitzer, MPM Chester Read Curator of History Collections. The items will need to be packed carefully to control their environment.

What’s more, professional museum staff like Schweitzer and others will have to consider what can be packed together. Wool, for example, can’t be packed in the same crate as silver, as it will release gases that can corrode the silver, Schweitzer said.

Once packed, the items must be transported, which presents museum staff with another unique logistical challenge.

As MPM President and CEO Ellen Censky has previously explained, the museum’s insurance company has set a cap on the value of items that can transported at any given time, or on the road, or in a single truck. “Thank god we’re not crossing a bridge,” Censky said, “because we can’t have two trucks on a bridge at one time.

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