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Milwaukee’s Grohmann Museum

Where the history of industry is reflected in art

Aug. 24, 2014
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“I’m among family when I’m there.” This is how Milwaukee photographer Jim Brozek feels when he visits the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Grohmann Museum (1000 N. Broadway). Museum Director James R. Kieselburg II calls it “a hidden gem.” Opened in 2007, the Grohmann is dedicated to the evolution of human work, especially during the Industrial Revolution.

Brozek feels at home because he has documented work environments and workers for 38 years. Two of his series, about being a ranch hand in New Mexico and refurbishing ore boats on Jones Island, were the subject of temporary exhibits. “The museum embraces and preserves the efforts of the worker,” says Brozek. “People can realize what’s gone, like lost languages.”

“The collection is a window to the culture of work and shared tasks,” says Kieselburg. He adds that when conducting tours, people often comment about family connections—an uncle worked at Ladish, a forge that brings back memories.

Labor Day is a great time of year to see the Grohmann’s “Man at Work” collection. Since female laborers are represented throughout, why not title the art the “People at Work” collection? Kieselburg explains, “‘Man’ was originally intended to encompass humankind.” He anticipates acquiring more images of women working.

Kieselburg suggests first-time visitors begin with the rooftop sculpture garden. The 18 sculptures summarize the types of labor represented in the museum. If you take the stairs from the roof to the third floor, you are almost in touching distance of the ceiling mural by contemporary German artist Hans Dieter Tylle, who also created an entryway floor mosaic, stained-glass panels and paintings for the museum.

A not-to-miss painting on the third floor is Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s The Peasant Lawyer, a satiric portrait of a lawyer’s office piled with papers on a desk and on shelves and stuffed in sacks. On the second floor, Jan Josefsz van Goyen’s A River Landscape with Lime-Kilns illustrates how the art can be used to study the history of industrial work. The 17th-century painting depicts two large limekilns by a river with a worker carrying a bag of limestone. The tools to convert limestone into powdered lime used for mortar, whitewash and concrete lean against the kilns.

The Grohmann’s collection has a national reputation for its role in education. Every year Michigan Technological University (MTU) brings industrial archaeology graduate students to the Grohmann. Timothy Scarlett, director of the MTU graduate program, notes the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., closed its galleries of industry. “The Grohmann is the closest thing we have now,” he says. “There is no other equivalent in the country.”

MSOE professor Deborah Jackman initiated a “Studies in Sustainability” blog based on art at the Grohmann. “Understanding past technology is a springboard for analyzing and discussing how we can make our 21st-century technologies more sustainable,” she says. Jackman analyzes Rubble Women, a 1951 painting by Johvi Schulze-Görlitz on the museum’s first floor. It depicts German women sifting through the rubble of a bombed-out building after World War II to reclaim the bricks. According to Jackman, Germany became “an international leader in the modern green building movement” partly due to these rebuilding practices after the war.

Don’t forget to check the lower level. This is where you can find art by Wisconsin artists.

The Grohmann has been criticized for not providing text panels giving background information about three German artists whose paintings were used for propaganda by the Third Reich, especially Erich Mercker. The Grohmann owns 82 of his paintings, the largest collection in the world.

Opening Sept. 5, 25 of these paintings will be on view for “Erich Mercker: Painter of Industry.” The curator, Patrick J. Jung, co-authored a new book published by MSOE, Erich Mercker and Technical Subjects: A Landscape and Industrial Artist in Twentieth-Century Germany.

The Mercker collection is another unique facet of the Grohmann. The Wolfsonian in Miami Beach is the only other museum in America housing the artist’s paintings. Wolfsonian curator Matthew Abess says, “Especially in a cultural moment when objects and images are so routinely removed from their contexts, museums have the opportunity to play a crucial role in returning them to their meanings.” Will the Mercker exhibit help return meaning to these images? Yes.

Text panels will provide context for the prolific Mercker (1891-1973), who completed more than 3,000 paintings, many of factories and other industrial sites. He trained in construction engineering and rendered what he saw accurately. Consider his 1922 masterpiece, Evening at the Blast Furnace, painted with a palette knife in an Impressionist style. The text will describe this winter scene with the “red-hot glow of the molten metal” and “rays of the setting sun upon smoke, steam and dust” revealing the beauty of industry.

Mercker’s subject matter dovetailed perfectly with Adolf Hitler’s strategy to employ art to “show the power and grandeur of the Nazi state.” Hitler purchased nine of his paintings; the artist’s work submitted for Reich-sponsored exhibits in Germany and France both reflected and supported Nazi ideology. The text for a painting of quarrying at Flossenbürg concentration camp will question why Mercker depicted forced laborers without their striped prison uniforms. Jung says the text will make clear, “This was an ethical and artistic compromise.”

Adds Joseph Walzer, a historian who wrote a recent biography of the museum’s namesake, Milwaukee industrialist and art collector Eckhart Grohmann, “It is invaluable for future MSOE engineers and professionals of all kinds to explore the implications of how work can be used for both constructive and destructive purposes.”


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