MPM Wants a New, Cutting-Edge Home – Just as They Had 50 Years Ago

May. 8, 2017
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The Milwaukee Public Museum needs a new home. Museum officials claim that their 52-year old building at the corner of Wells and Sixth needs renovations that are likely to cost as much as the construction of a new facility. In the chatter that followed this announcement there was little that supported preserving the current museum building for its historic value. Indeed, in an interview with OnMilwaukee’s Bobby Tanzillo, MPM president Dennis Kois seemed genuinely surprised that a social media friend of Tanzillo’s had expressed hope that the museum’s fountains would be preserved. “Someone actually wrote that?” Kois responded. “Wow.”

The Milwaukee Public Museum, as an institution, actually dates back to 1882, when the state legislature created a real estate tax to fund a public museum for the city. The museum’s first home was in the old Exhibition Building, which was located near MPM’s present-day home in Downtown. The museum was free to the public and featured an impressive collection of animals persevered via taxidermy and large German panorama displays. In 1898, the museum moved into the newly completed library building on West Wisconsin Avenue. In its new home, the museum became a fixture, assembling a world-class collection of intricate dioramas (88 in total) and other artifacts. The museum became the first in the world to display animals in recreations of their naturals habitats.

The need for the museum to have its own facility had been discussed as early as 1947, but it took nearly a decade of political wrangling to get a bond issue approved to fund the new construction and another five years to finish the project. The end result was promoted by the museum as being “50 years ahead of its time” and was billed as the only natural history museum of its kind in the world. Museum director Stephan F. Borhegyi proclaimed that the facility would be a “model” for the world. “This will be,” Borhegyi said, “the museum that men have dreamed about.”

The concept of the museum would allow visitors to walk through an integrated history of the earth and man, and would include special halls detailing the history of religion and communication. The facility would feature live animals and would also continue the tradition of using colorful and expansive dioramas to transport guests to other era and epochs. Of special note to locals was the planned “Gay ’90s” exhibit, which would recreate the downtown Milwaukee of the late nineteenth century. After the museum opened, this display was renamed “The Streets of Old Milwaukee.” All in all, the new museum was to be the fourth-largest of its kind in the nation, behind only the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Chicago’s Field Museum.

The new museum was also innovative in its design and use of space. “Our philosophy is to show that public buildings need not be austere and stiff and ugly,” associate curator Edward Green told the Milwaukee Journal, “that they can be warm, friendly, and beautiful.” The interior of the museum was done in a tasteful Mid-Century Modern style, with earth tones, exposed wood, and burlap trimmings that sought to create a warm environment conducive to study and deep thought. The museum’s “hidden” areas – storerooms, meeting rooms, and office spaces – were developed in a similar way to integrate them with the public parts of the museum and create a more open and inviting environment. “The result,” the Journal noted in a glowing review of the new building, “is a dynamic atmosphere for work and study, anything but the musty, dusty, concept which museums once had.”

The transition between from the library to the new building was a slow one. For two years, both museums were open to the public as the massive collections made the one-block move to the new building. Left behind were the 88 dioramas that had been the hallmark of the old museum. Officials said it would have been impractical to move them, but also admitted it would take a single artist nearly 15 years of 40-hour work weeks to replicate them. It was not until the early 1970s that the move was finally completed.

If the current museum facility cannot be saved, hopefully the next one will be just as forward-thinking and dynamic upon its introduction. 


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