Chudnow Museum chronicles Milwaukee between the wars
Though the Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear may seem new to me and you, much of the collection has actually been in situ for more than a decade at 839 N. 11th St., a big old house facing the freeway.
The home was formerly the office of Avrum Chudnow, who was an avid collector of memorabilia and ephemera from Milwaukee's past, and Chudnow displayed many of the items there, beginning in 1991.
The museum, open to the public for about a month now, celebrates its grand opening on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 18-19. Admission to the grand opening is free.
"(Avrum's) father was a junk peddler, I think that's kind of where it came from," says the museum's executive curator Joel Willems. "He collected whatever met his eye."
The Chudnow Museum occupies two floors of the house (the third floor is used for storage of other items that will be rotated into the exhibits) and is laid out in a "Streets of Old Milwaukee" style.
Downstairs, there is a political room, a drug store, a grocery store, a train station. Upstairs is a doctor's office, a toy store, a Saxe movie theater showing old films and more.
That inspiration came from the famed Milwaukee Public Museum exhibit, which hosted an exhibition celebrating the sesquicentennial of Jewish immigration to Milwaukee. Chudnow lent items to that show.
When that exhibit closed, Chudnow – who passed away in 2005 – took the inspiration as a means for exhibiting his copious collection of items that span a century. There is an old wood stove, hand-cranked coffee grinders, food tins, pharmacy bottles, old toys, glassware, buttons from the campaigns of Wisconsin politicians across the decades and much, much more.
"Two of the stores in our museum reflect his wife's side of the family: the Grafman Grocery and the Augusta Hart Shoe Store," says Willems.
Willems says that in plotting the museum that would be open to the public, the board – the museum is a non-profit – decided to focus on a specific time period; namely, the decades between the wars.
"I'm really glad that we picked this time period. Not only did we have a lot of items from the time period, but the period between the wars you get the roaring '20s, you get the Depression, you get Prohibition. It's really a dynamic time in American history."
The exhibits, says Willems, were built by Edge Grain, a local company that builds sets for local theater productions. The architecture of the house is an attraction in itself, with stunning woodwork, leaded and stained glass and great tile and iron work on the first floor fireplace.
Especially unique at the Chudnow Museum is its gift shop. Though it's small, nearly all of the items are original artifacts being deaccessioned from the collection. There are beer glasses and trays and more. Some items, like the vintage postcards, are modern reproductions.
Willems – who is currently working to develop an education component to the museum – says that although only one room will feature rotating exhibits, the other displays will change over time.
"Our changing room is where we have the appliance items right now," he notes. "That's the one room that would change significantly. The toy store maybe we'll decorate for the holidays, bring in a few new items at time goes by. You really have to make things different for visitors. But the room layouts, we really took them into consideration early on."
The museum is currently open Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. After Labor Day it will be open Wednesdays through Sundays, 10-4. For the grand opening it will be open Saturday, Aug. 18 from 10 to 4 and Sunday, Aug. 19 from noon until 4. The opening ceremony takes place Sunday at 1 p.m.
Admission is $5, $4 for seniors (65 and up) and children 7-17. Kids 6 and under are free.
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