Milwaukee Public Museum

The Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM) is a natural and human history museum in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The museum was chartered in 1882 and opened to the public in 1884; it is a not-for-profit organization operated by the Milwaukee Public Museum, Inc.[2] MPM has three floors of exhibits and the first Dome Theater in Wisconsin. In September 2020, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley praised the importance of MPM, saying it serves "the most diverse clientele of any cultural institution in the county or the state".[3]

Milwaukee Public Museum
Milwaukee Public Museum.jpg
Location800 West Wells Street
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
 United States
TypePublic museum
Collection size4 million[1]
Visitors500,000-600,000 annually[1]
PresidentDr. Ellen Censky
OwnerMilwaukee County


The German-English AcademyEdit

MPM was one of several major American museums established in the late 19th century. Although it was officially chartered in 1882,[1] its existence can be traced back to 1851, to the founding of the German-English Academy in Milwaukee.[4] The Academy's principal, Peter Engelmann, encouraged student field trips, many of which collected various specimens—organic, geological, and archaeological in nature—which were kept at the Academy. Later, alumni and others donated specimens of historical and ethnological interest to the collection.[clarification needed][citation needed]

By 1857, interest in the Academy's collection had grown to such an extent that Engelmann organized a natural history society to manage and expand the collection. Eventually, the collection, which had come to be informally called "The Museum", exceeded the Academy's ability to accommodate it. August Stirn, a city alderman and member of the national history society[clarification needed], obtained legislation from the state legislature for the City of Milwaukee to accept the collection and take the measures to establish "a free public museum".[4]

Early yearsEdit

"A Sense of Wonder" in the first floor lobby, done in the style of the early museum

The newly formed Board of Trustees hired Carl Doerflinger to be the museum's first director and rented space to place exhibits. The Milwaukee Public Museum opened to the public on May 24, 1884. Doerflinger placed emphasis on using MPM's exhibits for study and research as well as for public education, until he resigned in 1888. He also urged the city to purchase land on which a building could be constructed to house the museum and the Milwaukee Public Library; the new building (at 814 W. Wisconsin Avenue[1]) was completed in 1898.[4]

In 1890, Carl Akeley, a taxidermist and biologist noted as the "father of modern taxidermy" completed the first complete museum habitat diorama in the world, depicting a muskrat colony.

Henry L. Ward was hired as MPM's fourth director in 1902; previously, the museum had focused solely on the natural sciences: this changed when Ward began the creation of a History Museum.[4] To further this goal, Samuel A. Barrett, the recipient of the first doctorate in anthropology awarded by the University of California, was selected to head an anthropology-history department.

Akeley's muskrat diorama

Barrett later succeeded Ward and led the museum through the Great Depression of the 1930s. Barrett used the Works Progress Administration and other New Deal programs to keep the museum running and to create employment beyond the previous basic staff.

Modern historyEdit

Construction on MPM's current building began in 1960 and was completed in 1962. The current site is at 800 W. Wells Street,[1] a block north of the old Museum-Library building, still the home of the Milwaukee Central Library, which continued to house exhibits until 1966.[4]

A controversy over the imposition of admittance fees on visitors who were not residents of the City of Milwaukee led to the museum being sold by the City to Milwaukee County in 1976.[5] In 1992, amid assertions that the Museum was on the verge of bankruptcy and might have to be sold or completely privatized, a compromise was reached in which the county retained the museum's nominal ownership but all operating control was handed over to Milwaukee Public Museum, Inc., a not-for-profit controlled by local business interests such as Miller Brewing. Employee wages and benefits were slashed, but private donations expanded and the county's share of costs was diminished.

In 2006, charges were filed against former museum chief financial officer Terry Gaouette, following the revelation that the museum was several million dollars in the red, a fact that allegedly had been hidden for years by illegal money transfers.[6] Gaouette pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge of falsifying a financial report,[7] and his CPA license was restored in 2010.[citation needed]

In 2010, the Milwaukee Public Museum appointed a new director Jay B. Williams, formerly of PrivateBank. He has focused on fundraising and improving repeat traffic.[8][9][10]

In 2014, MPM hired Dennis Kois as President and CEO. Kois resigned from the Museum in 2018 for personal reasons, following the museum board's investigation of an alleged affair between Kois and a staff member. Ellen Censky has been named the interim President and CEO while the MPM Board of Directors undertakes a nationwide search for the position.[11]

At the conclusion of the search in June 2019, Dr. Ellen Censky was officially named President and CEO [12]


On September 11, 2020, the museum announced plans to build a new building along N. Sixth St, between W. McKinley Ave and W. Vliet St. on a site 1 block north of Fiserv Forum, where the Milwaukee Bucks play. According to a study undertaken by the museum, it revealed that the museum was in need of $30 million in maintenance work. Although design work was only in the earliest stages at the time of the announcement; it is estimated that the new building will only feature just over half the exhibit space as the current facility. The new building will also serve as a new home for the Betty Brinn Children's Museum. Currently, it is estimated that the new building will open sometime in 2026.[13] Due to the greatly reduced size of the future museum, MPM will seek a second site to store around 4 million artifacts that will not be able to be displayed.[14]


The Milwaukee Public Museum houses permanent and traveling exhibits.

Permanent exhibitsEdit

The new "streetcar" entrance to the Streets of Old Milwaukee

The first major exhibit in the current Museum to be completed was "Streets of Old Milwaukee", which opened in January 1965. It is one of the more popular exhibits in MPM, and it is estimated that several million people have visited it since its completion.[15]

Currently, MPM holds seventeen permanent exhibits:[16]

  • Africa depicts, in four separate dioramas, the savanna and its wildlife, a watering hole, a Maasai lion hunt and the wildlife of a bamboo forest.
  • Arctic is a set of dioramas of the natives, both animal and human, of the Arctic.
  • Asia includes depictions of a Japanese garden and a market in Old Delhi, India, as well as collections of Chinese art and other displays from Thailand, Tibet and Myanmar.
  • Bugs Alive! features live specimens of thirteen species of insect, crustacean, arachnid, centipede and millipede from Africa, Australia, Central America and Madagascar.
  • Crossroads of Civilization explores how the ancient civilizations in Asia, Europe, and Africa formed a cultural epicenter and came together to form a physical and intellectual crossroads. This exhibit opened March 15, 2015, and is the first permanent exhibit the MPM has installed in over a decade.
  • European Village is a recreation of homes and shops from thirty-three European cultures as they might have appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • Exploring Life on Earth explains the process of life, displays representations of various environments, past and present and allows the visitor to experience the laboratories and collections used by museum scientists.
  • Living Oceans is a large diorama of ocean life, into which the visitor descends through various levels of the ocean, from the shallows into the darker waters inhabited by various species of luminous fish. The exhibit also features a collection of mollusk shells and the historical uses of marine life.
The buffalo hunt in the North American Indians exhibit
  • North American Indians features a scene from a modern powwow, histories of the relations between Native Americans and Europeans, a diorama of a buffalo hunt and a southwestern pueblo village through which visitors can walk; examples of weavings and beadwork by Wisconsin Woodland Indians are also on display.
  • Pacific Islands contains displays from various Pacific islands, including Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Easter Island.
  • Pre-Columbian Americas contains displays illustrating the origin of the Native Americans, as well as the cultures of various Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Aztecs, Maya and Olmecs, and Central Andean civilizations, such as the Inca.
  • The Puelicher Butterfly Wing allows visitors to walk through a greenhouse-enclosed garden wherein live butterflies fly freely, often landing on the hands or shoulders of the visitors. There are also displayed the pupae of future butterflies.
  • Rain Forest is a 12,000 sq ft (1,100 m2) model of the ecosystem of a tropical rainforest through which visitors can walk.
  • A Sense of Wonder contains more than 1,000 specimens from the museum's collection of six million artifacts, including the skeleton of a humpback whale.
  • South & Middle America contains a diorama of a Guatemalan marketplace and other scenes, ranging from the Maya Lowlands to the Andes.
  • Streets of Old Milwaukee contains models, about three-quarters of life-size, of shops and houses, fully furnished, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the city's early pioneer businesses, such as Schlitz Beer, Northwestern Mutual and Conrad Schmitt Studios are included. Gottfried Schloemer's first gasoline automobile is also on display here. The Streets of Old Milwaukee was renovated and expanded in 2015, reopening on December 11 of that year.[15]
  • The Third Planet depicts the concept of plate tectonics and includes dioramas of how the Wisconsin area would have appeared in various geological eras, going as far back as 400 million years when the region was a shallow sea. The exhibit also displays life-size models of various species of dinosaurs. The exhibit underwent a refresh in early 2017 within the "Hell Creek" display.[17]

Special exhibitions

The Milwaukee Public Museum also hosts special traveling exhibitions that are only available for viewing for limited times. One of the most famous, and popular, in recent years was Saint Peter and the Vatican: Legacy of the Popes, a traveling exhibition which made three stops in North America, the last of which was at MPM in early 2006. The exhibition featured 300 works of art from the collections of Vatican museums.[18]

Research and collectionsEdit

The Hebior Mammoth on display in the atrium

Totaling more than 4 million artifacts,[1] research and collections at the Milwaukee Public Museum include:

  • the Anthropology Department, which contains approximately 120,000 artifacts.
  • the Botany Department includes a greenhouse on the museum roof, scanning electron microscope and modern DNA laboratory. A herbarium collection, now over 250,000 specimens, was started by the German-English Academy in 1852. The original 5,000 specimens were transferred in 1857 to the Wisconsin Natural History Society and then to the museum in 1883.
  • the Conservation Department.
  • the Geology Department has a large variety of minerals and fossils, along with a research staff.
  • Historical and cultural artifacts including the Dietz typewriter, Dietz bicycle, and the Rudolph J. Nunnemacher arms collections.
  • Invertebrate zoology.
  • a Photograph Collection including 6,000 images from the Sumner W. Matteson Collection, 8,000 from the Brandon DeCou collection, and photographs of Wisconsin Indians taken by museum staff.
  • a Reference Library containing over 100,000 volumes of natural history interest.
  • the Registration Department to inventory museum collections.
  • Vertebrate zoology.
  • a 14,500-year-old woolly mammoth skeleton donated to the museum. The real bones are too fragile and are preserved for research, but a fiberglass replica set is on display at the museum.[19]
  • a collection of thousands of bird eggs, which is currently being digitally archived[20]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Behm, Don (May 25, 2015). "Milwaukee Public Museum taking stock of current digs and future needs". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved May 26, 2015.
  2. ^ MPM Mission Statement
  3. ^ "Public Museum announces site for new building". 11 September 2020.
  4. ^ a b c d e Oestreich Lurie, Nancy
  5. ^ Lurie, Nancy Oestreich. A Special Style: The Milwaukee Public Museum, 1882-1982. Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Museum, 1983
  6. ^ Umhoefer, Dave (2006-10-12). "Former museum official charged". Retrieved 2013-08-22.
  7. ^ "The Irony: Terry Gaouette Could Easily Be Characterized As One Of The Milwaukee Public Museum'S Biggest Benefactors". Charity Governance. Retrieved 2013-08-22.
  8. ^ Schultze, Steve. "Milwaukee Public Museum director starts with details". article. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved 2012-03-25.
  9. ^ "Sponsorship". Sponsorship letter. Milwaukee Public Museum. Retrieved 2012-03-25.
  10. ^ Held, Tom. "Bradley Foundation to Give 300,000..." article. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved 2012-03-25.
  11. ^ "Dennis Kois abruptly resigns as CEO of Milwaukee Public Museum after an affair allegation investigated". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved 2018-08-31.
  12. ^ "Milwaukee Public Museum announces new President & CEO". Milwaukee Public Museum. Retrieved 2019-06-11.
  13. ^ Daykin, Tom (September 11, 2020). "Milwaukee Public Museum, Betty Brinn Children's Museum to build new downtown facility north of Fiserv Forum". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved September 13, 2020.
  14. ^ "Plats and Parcels: The Public Museum's Big Plans".
  15. ^ a b The Streets of Old Milwaukee
  16. ^ MPM Permanent Exhibitions
  17. ^ "MPM History - Milwaukee Public Museum".
  18. ^ Saint Peter and the Vatican: Legacy of the Popes
  19. ^ Ramde, Dinesh (2008-07-09). "Milwaukee museum unveils woolly mammoth skeleton". Associated Press. Retrieved 2008-07-09.
  20. ^ Conover, Emily (July 26, 2014). "Milwaukee Public Museum's vast egg collection gets protection upgrade". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved October 30, 2016.


External linksEdit

Coordinates: 43°02′27″N 87°55′16″W / 43.040744°N 87.921095°W / 43.040744; -87.921095