This one’s for reader Mark Zimmerman, who asks, "Do you remember the junk pile exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum? It was like a found objects art sculpture with old rusty shopping carts and TV antennas, etc., in it, and it even had water running through it with the floor painted orange to resemble rust. It was pretty cool, and I've missed it since they removed it many years ago."
I asked the museum’s Carrie Trousil Becker, who said, "This exhibit, called ‘Urban Habitat,’ is the exhibit that we get asked about most frequently via social media, and people particularly reminisce about the giant trash pile."
"The Urban Habitat: The City and Beyond" opened in October 1976 on the museum’s second floor in a 5,000-square foot area in the southwest corner (now the special exhibitions gallery, I believe) and was a hit. It was part of the museum’s program to celebrate the American bicentennial.
Upon the exhibit’s opening, the Sentinel talked to the museum’s curator of anthropology Nancy Oestreich Lurie, who was instrumental in creating "The Urban Habitat."
"Originally," the paper wrote, "the exhibit was to have been of Wisconsin resources, (Lurie) said. But since resources have already been explored in the museum’s Hall of Life and the biology exhibits, the decision was made to turn the new section into an environmental hall.
"Museums in other parts of the country have attempted to design urban and environmental exhibits, she said, and may of them have failed. So Mrs. Lurie and other members of a museum subcommittee decided that Milwaukee should offer something unique and innvoative."
What the museum built was a survey of urban development, from hunters and gatherers living in rock shelters to the (then-) present, represented by "Where Do I Plug It In?" -- a wall of electric appliances. In between were the Godspeed -- a reproduction of Capt. John Smith’s vessel, representing the European settlement of the New World -- machines and water wheels that fueled the industrial revolution, and that ginormous junk pile, a sign of the pollution crisis afflicting the modern world.
The junk pile had a name, too. It was officially called "The Unexpected Dilemma of Progress," though I’ve also seen it referred to as "Mt. Trashmore" and most typically, simply "The Junkpile."
"The Junkpile contains a stratigraphic cross section of American life from the turn of the century into the 1970s. It is a concept central to the Urban Habitat theme," wrote the museum’s Marion Davison in a chapter that appeared a museum trade publication.
According to the Sentinel, "in order to allow visitors an opportunity to reflect on what they have just seen and experienced, they will leave the (exhibition) along a dark theater-like ramp before entering the other exhibit areas."
In 1977, the museum published a 14-page booklet to accompany the exhibit.
Davison also wrote of the popularity of the exhibit, which seems to have sometimes escaped the consciousness of decision-makers.
"The Urban Habitat and the Pre-Columbian Mezzanine are located in obscure areas of the museum and are acknowledged as low attendance sections," wrote Davison. "Only the guards were aware that one of the large exhibits in the Urban Habitat entitled the Junkpile ("When It Comes to Waste, Americans are King of the Mountain!") was extremely popular. People often requested directions to reach the exhibit hall.
"After sharing information about the exhibit with me, the guard discussed ideas for identifying the contents of the hall more clearly to raise public awareness and attention."
Perhaps that misperception offers a clue to why "The Urban Habitat" was closed and dismantled around 1988.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Bobby Tanzilo
Published May 26, 2015
OK, I admit that I've led you here under (potentially) false pretenses. What I really want is for you, dear readers, to tell me about the best pizzerias in Kenosha.
Published May 22, 2015
Back in 1996, some folks saw the closing of West Allis-West Milwaukee School District's Roosevelt School, 932 S. 60th St., as "inevitable" and that prediction came true later that year. Now, it seems that the demolition of the building might also be inevitable, though nothing has yet been officially decided.
Published May 20, 2015
It's that time of year again. The time when I'm thrilled that my kids are thrilled to sign up for Milwaukee Public Library's Super Reader summer reading program.
Published May 19, 2015
Standing amid the surviving buildings of the old Concordia College, it's easy to imagine what an inviting campus this was back in the day. Low-rise buildings - most of them in that collegiate gothic style that shouts "university" - surrounded the quad on all four sides, creating an intimate, protective environment. These days, most of the buildings survive and they're owned by the Forest County Potawatomi, which has plans to renovate the entire campus.
Published May 18, 2015
Leo Minor is a relatively faint constellation up in the northern sky that comprises an array of 37 distant stars. Closer to home Leo Minor is a nom de bass of local veteran musician Jason Todd. Though this Leo Minor is just one star, it draws on a vast array of musical influences. The latest result of the ongoing project is a white label vinyl 7" 45.
Published May 15, 2015
This morning the folks in the facilities department of the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District were kind enough to give me a tour of a closed school building. As an added bonus, my tour guide offered to show me an interesting school nearby, too. The contrast was striking.
Published May 14, 2015
Adventure Rock will host a groundbreaking next Wednesday for its new East Side location on the corner of Commerce and North.
Published May 13, 2015
I'm enjoying watching the progress of some vintage Milwaukee buildings being prepared for the future.
Published May 13, 2015
If you're champing at the bit for the next Doors Open MKE, you'll have to wait until September. But you can get your hometown exploration fix thanks to DOMKE's elder Historic Milwaukee Inc. sibling, Spaces and Traces, which is back for its 34th year this weekend.
Published May 11, 2015
A while back I had the pleasure of exploring the 1876 cream city brick house at 1363 N. Prospect Ave. Designed by architect James Douglas, for grain broker Gilbert Collins, the house has since been converted to office space, but it retains many of of fabulous details. The other day, Cobalt Glassworks' Jon Schroder sent me some photos of newly restored vintage windows from Collins House.