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

Milwaukee Public Museum's zoology curator details bird collection, future museum plans

The Milwaukee Public Museum is getting ready to relocate. As part of our series exploring the museum’s archives ahead of its move, we’re turning to zoology.

Nearly half of the MPM’s four million artifacts are in its zoology department. It includes taxidermy animals, preserved bugs and birds. Collection manager Julia Colby says some of the collection will be displayed for the first time at the future museum.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

About how many items in the Milwaukee Public Museum's collection are in the zoology department?

About two million specimens. That's a rough estimate. Some of them are, you know, drawers and drawers and drawers of insects, which we think we've counted accurately.

How much of that ends up actually on the floor?

Less than 1%. It's a tiny, tiny amount, and a lot of it, as we'll talk about here in a little bit, is just if we put them on display, what would the public get out of them versus the harm to the object or the space that we take to display it? It's Just not evocative. It doesn't help us tell the story that we want to tell, and so it doesn't really serve a purpose to be out.

An extended conversation with zoology collection manager Julia Colby.

Can you talk a little bit about what you're expecting when it comes time to move to the future museum?

So, this is actually our first collection that we're getting ready to move — my first collection that we're getting ready to move.

We're going to hire some folks to do inventory so we know exactly what we are packing when we pack it. They're going to go through, they're going to check it off on the list, verify some data to make sure they've got the right specimen in front of them. It gets a bar code that will just be tied around the legs gently, and then we'll know how many orioles we have, what drawer they're in, what cabinet they're in.

This material is easy-ish to move because you can move it in the drawer and then we'll either load it into new drawers and load those drawers into the cabinet, or we'll move it in these drawers and move them into the new cabinets. Some of the stuff, like the taxidermy, most of these are going on exhibit, but the taxidermy does get a little bit dodgier because you've got to keep it in the right orientation and you've got to keep it from tipping. Many of these are designed to be sort of clipped onto the wall.

You just look at each one and sort of figure out how to do it and how to keep it supported and then go from there. I will say that it does keep me up at night, but it's not that bad. This is not the worst collection to move. This stuff is relatively hale and hearty and robust. There's some other collections where that's not the case or they're just much more breakable, but this collection will be relatively easy.

You mentioned some of these items being on exhibit. Will that be the first time they've been on display?

Other than being loaned out in classrooms, I don't think these were ever in cases at the old museum or even in this museum. I think that these will be on display for the first time essentially. These collections were largely built for exhibit; that's what they were collecting for primarily other than the scientific specimens, so they definitely had an eye to the best things. I don't know that any of them have ever been on exhibit. There would be, certainly, a lot of them if there were — it would just be a whole museum of birds.

What can people expect with how this department will have a space in the future museum?

I haven't seen the final like renderings of this yet, but we're talking about an exhibit called Migration South, which runs through one of the Wisconsin galleries and up above is the migration of birds going south because most of these birds do not live here year round. They winter somewhere else and they come up here in the summers to take advantage of the fact that we have longer day length in the summer, and so they will be flying or perched in trees somehow. We haven't worked all that out, but they will be migrating south out towards our rainforest in the new building.

Eddie is a WUWM news reporter.
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