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Milwaukee Public Museum Seeks New Home

Downtown Milwaukee has been undergoing a building boom in recent years — from completed projects, like the Northwestern Mutual tower and the newly named Fiserv Forum, to current ones, like the BMO Harris tower on Water Street.

The changes have affected the city’s cultural facilities as well. The Oriental Theater is undergoing major renovations under its new ownership. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is renovating the Grand Theater as its new venue. And the Milwaukee Art Museum built an addition in 2001 to ease a then-looming crisis in storing its vast collections.

The Milwaukee Public Museum is dealing with a similar issue in the space it has occupied for more than 50 years. The museum announced several months ago that it's starting the planning process to build and move to a new facility. More recently, museum leaders unveiled design concepts as they plan how to fund the project.

Visitors to the museum might not know it, but the museum's current building poses a threat to its valuable collections, which exceed 4 million specimens and artifacts.

Dennis Kois, president and CEO of the Milwaukee Public Museum, says the museum's emergency response team can only do so much to protect the collections from "the failures of the building and a facility that has really outlived its useful life." Some of the problems include water leaks, mold issues, and temperature swings.

He says the building's deterioration is slowly but surely degrading and destroying the museum's collections. "Our job as a museum is to care for those collections so that they're around 100, 500, 1,000 years from now, hopefully, for people to research and utilize," Kois says.

Roughly 10 percent of the museum's objects are on display at any given time because many of its objects and specimens are used for research purposes. Kois believes the museum should be considered a statewide institution, as it is Wisconsin's natural history museum and only major research-based institution of its kind. The research conducted with the museum's artifacts benefits the whole state, he says, and there are collections and visitors from every county in the state. 

To continue to fulfill this important role, Kois and others insist, the museum needs a new home.

Kois says it has taken some time to realize the extent of the problem, but a 2013 reportby the Public Policy Forum demonstrated the extent of the building's issues. 

Ideally, Kois says, the museum is looking for a location close to downtown that meets a range of criteria. He wants the new building to feel like part of the streetscape, an open place of knowledge and ideas that is accessible and inviting to visitors. Proximity to public transportation networks is a factor, as well as the availability of parking and event space, which are important considerations for long-term sustainability for the museum's business-related capacities. 

Although the building will be new, the plan is to keep some things the same and preserve what makes the Milwaukee Public Museum special.   

By the end of this year, Kois hopes to choose a location for the new building. He wants to break ground on the new facility by 2022.

In the meantime, Kois will be working toward securing financing for the new building. He feels encouraged by recent state investment in the Wisconsin Historical Society and believes there's a strong case for the museum as an institution worthy of statewide investment.