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New Wisconsin History Museum Will 'Democratize' The Stories & Artifacts Of Wisconsinites

Wisconsin Historical Museum

If the Smithsonian Institution is known as “The Nation’s Attic,” the Wisconsin Historical Society holds that distinction here in this state.  But leaders from Historical Society believe the attic could use some significant work.

Planning is underway for an ambitious new Museum of Wisconsin History in Madison, and the effort involves dozens of meetings with communities and demographic groups around the state.  This week’s meetings are in Kenosha and Racine, looking for input on how best to tell the story of our state.

"We have great stories to tell.  And that’s how people learn - the tradition of storytelling," says Christian Overland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker director of the Wisconsin Historical Society. "So in a history museum, it’s more than just the objects, it’s about how do you put together these narratives for the public?"

The current museum on the Capitol Square in Madison is in a building that was originally a hardware store and "woefully undersized," according to Overland. The museum's size doesn't accommodate a sufficient number of students to be practical as a field trip destination for many schools.  And a lack of modern climate control severely limits which historical artifacts can be displayed, and housed adequately.

Since 1846, the Wisconsin Historical Society has collected, preserved and shared stories from Wisconsinites, and Overland says it's time to build a space where the whole collection can be shared. "We want to democratize [these] with a new state-of-the-art 21st century museum so everybody in Wisconsin and our region can benefit from it," he says.

The new museum would expand the footprint to 100,000 gross square feet, and cost around $120 million according to Overland. The idea of a new museum has been a goal of the Society for nearly 20 years, and the State of Wisconsin has committed $70 million to the project if the Society raises $50 million in private donations. Overland believes this goal is attainable now, and if all goes as planned, a new museum would open its doors in 2024.

"It's time to do this for Wisconsin - we deserve the best," says Overland.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.