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Milwaukee Public Museum designers discuss new museum's inspirations

The new Milwaukee Public Museum will feature windows that showcase exhibits to passersby.
Ennead Architects
The new Milwaukee Public Museum will feature windows that showcase exhibits to passersby.

Many people consider theMilwaukee Public Museum to be iconic for its exhibits like the Streets of Old Milwaukee.

But one of the museum’s goals for its new location is to create an iconic building that will house its dioramas, displays and exhibitions.

After 62 years at West Wells Street, the current museum is deteriorating. The new site will be just blocks away from its current location, and about half the size at 200,000 square feet.

On July 18, the museum unveiled a first look at the Cream City-colored, five-story building, which is inspired by the rock formations at Mill Bluff State Park.

The concrete building will have three tower-like structures connected by glass. A lightwell will illuminate the common area with natural light.

Jarrett Pelletier, a senior designer at Ennead Architects, said people will notice the influence of nature in the building’s design. Pelletier said each tower will feature rounded corners and soft edges, like the water-worn surfaces at Mill Bluff.

"The facade has these sort of ripples that help you turn the corner, that also bring a kind of striated character, which is reminiscent of soil over time," he said. "It was really the kind of shapes and the forms, I think, that translated directly into the architecture."

Ennead Architects designed the Shanghai Astronomy Museum and Natural History Museum of Utah. In partnership with Thinc Design, and architectural firm Kahler Slater, whose work includes the Milwaukee Art Museum, designers aimed to create a unique place that honors Wisconsin’s nature and people.

Pelletier said it was a seven-day trip across the state that inspired the new museum’s design.

Extended conversation with the Milwaukee Public Museum new design team.

"That experience really framed a lot for us the design of the building," said Pelletier. "We talked a lot about how nature and culture are in folks’ backyard, and they don't necessarily know to look a little bit deeper. Once they do, it's kind of a treasure trove. You sort of peel back the layers."

Ennead design partner and lead designer, Todd Schliemann, said the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers will play a role in how people enjoy the space. Inside the building, three pathways will represent the convergence of the three rivers.

A rendering previews the commons area at the new Milwaukee Public Museum, which is slated to open in 2026.
Ennead Architects
A rendering previews the commons area at the new Milwaukee Public Museum, which is slated to open in 2026.

"It's a beginning for people to learn about natural history, and also to learn about each other," said Schliemann. "It's a public space, it's a gathering space, it's a confluence of cultures, which Milwaukee and Wisconsin have a multitude of. That was the other thing that we discovered, the building needed to appeal to a wide variety of people of all ages and cultures."

Schliemann said each of the rivers has a distinct character of flow that will lead to a central meeting area, which is a free zone that people can visit without purchasing a ticket.

However, we're confident that once you get inside, you'll be so intrigued and inspired, you will [buy a ticket]," he added. "Then you move up into the exhibit spaces and up onto the roof, which not only has the vivarium, but it has an outdoor terrace, which overlooks the city. So you’ve perhaps come from the city, you ascend through all the different exhibits, and then you can look out onto the place that you've come from."

Schliemann said the north entrance features a low scale and landscaped area that includes a parking structure and café. The west entrance will have lunchrooms nearby, which is where large groups will enter. The museum’s south entrance will face the Deer District, serving as more of a formal front door to the space.

Schliemann described how he thinks people will react when seeing the new museum.

"You feel the space, and all of a sudden, you kind of leave the day's baggage behind, your worries," he said. "You have an emotional experience, which then once you see the exhibits, you use your mind to start to think and have an intellectual experience. That combination is how the architecture and the exhibits are brought to life and make it memorable, so that you come back for that sort of thrill, that sensation, the feeling of inspiration and understanding, or just to have a cup of coffee in a wonderful space."

Wisconsin Wonders is the museum’s project funding program, which has a goal of raising $90 million in public funding. In March, County supervisors voted to spend $45 million on the museum’s construction. Costs for the new site total $240 million, which includes expenses for designing the building and exhibits, purchasing land, relocating collections and a $25 million endowment for future sustainability.

The museum is slated to open in 2026 at West McKinley Avenue and North Sixth Street.

Eddie is a WUWM news reporter.
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