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Explore the archives at one of Wisconsin’s most historic institutions.

‘Very gentle, very slow, very padded’: Moving MPM's 4 million artifacts

MPM Staffers tagging and prepping artifacts for move
Joy Powers
MPM Staffers tagging and prepping artifacts for move

Packing for a move can be complicated. Now think about what it would be like to move an entire museum, with its fragile and sometimes ancient artifacts. That’s what’s happening at the Milwaukee Public Museum as it prepares to move to its new location in 2027.

The years-long process is starting with inorganic objects from the history collection — these items can be stored for longer.

At MPM’s packing lab, thousands of ceramic and glass items are being catalogued and carefully stowed. Corinne Roth, a collections move technician, is surrounded by delicate and intricately designed bowls, plates and cups. The items date from the early 1800s to 1950.

Roth is wrapping a ceramic plate in acid-free tissue and archival foam. Then she places it inside a reusable crate that’s full of customizable dividers to accommodate for the museum’s vast collection, making sure everything is comfy and cozy.

MPM staff will repeat that process for the rest of the museum’s 4-million-item inventory.

An extended conversation with MPM's Sara Podejko.

Sara Podejko, the museum’s collections move manager, says packing items from other departments, for example the taxidermized animals and fossils, will prove challenging.

“The way we pack glass in ceramic collections are going to be night and day different from how we pack up our birds, to how we pack up our vertebrate paleontological specimens, to how we transport our specimens in ethanol and alcohol,” Podejko explains. “So because of that, each collection really needs a different set of standards and conditions. Each one is kind of its own separate problem to solve, but problem in the best way because we’re taking them to a really great end point at the new museum.”

Podejko says museum staff consider the material makeup of each item before moving it. “The way that we transport any museum object — whether it’s glass or whether it’s a foam pillow — is going to be the same way. We’re always very, very careful. The fragility of these pieces proves less of a risk because many of our processes kind of account for being very gentle, very slow, very padded.”
Another move technician, Quinn Tahon, explains his process for logging each item: “I am updating the digital record for this specific object so we know that it is packed, we know what crate it’s in, what layer it’s in and the date too so we know when it went it the crate. I also put my name there so we know who did it.”

The practice of digitizing items and using barcodes for them will be useful for exhibitions at the future museum. Podejko says, “We took our paper catalog records and digitized them so it means that we got all of that data into a digital database along with our barcode. When we do future exhibits, future shows, things like that, it’s going to allow the collections staff here to be very flexible in what they pull and really being able to pick the absolute best piece for the public to see and to showcase the stories that we’re trying to tell.”

The care and detail that goes into packing is part of the reason the museum is starting this process years ahead of its complete transition in 2027. And as the packing continues, the MPM will remain open to the public.


Eddie is a WUWM news reporter.
Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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