Though most of us only remember the current Milwaukee Public Museum building – opened in 1963 – the 54-year-old structure is actually the institution's third home. As times have changed, so has the museum's house.
The fact that the museum has been considering a new home to carry it into the future is no secret – in fact MPM has been working with a consultant for a few years now on the building – and it's a long process.
"When a museum makes changes," says Todd Happer, communications manager for the Association of Science-Technology Centers, a trade group to which MPM belongs, "they're slow moving, and they're almost always taken in response to needs of the community and in fulfillment of the institution's mission."
Here, the museum has an inefficient building with outdated infrastructure and inadequate conditions for housing its collections, according to President and CEO Dennis Kois. The current situation threatens the museum's ability to remain an accredited institution and to be financially viable going forward.
Milwaukee's museum is not unique in the challenges it faces, according to Happer.
"One of the institutional needs that really does drive that is that when these intuitions were founded a century ago, the builders didn't really anticipate the amount of collections that would be acquired over time," he says.
"Certainly they didn't know as much as we know today about the chemistry and environmental science behind keeping those specimens and those objects well preserved so that they're always accessible for the community."
These and other issues factor into MPM's decision to build new rather than renovate the current building.
Now that talk about a new Milwaukee Public Museum has again been in the news, we sat down with the museum's Kois about the kinds of considerations and decisions that figure into such a move.
OnMilwaukee: I posted a picture on social media last time I was here of the really nice marble water fountains in the museum, and someone commented, "I hope they’re going to take those when they move." Is this a sign of some of the issues you face in terms of the idea of a new building?
Dennis Kois: Someone actually wrote that? Wow. There's incredible value in being beloved, and it can also become the albatross around your neck that you can get loved to death. So it's one of those things we're going to have to navigate really carefully as we go.
You have to play that middle ground, don't you, of not becoming staid and not ever changing, but then not changing faster than this community ...
Than the community can kind of support. Yeah, absolutely, and I think that's going to be hard to do. For institutions like this, though, where ultimately we've got to shift that mindset from being that the institution is beloved because it is the thing I went to as a kid, or it's the thing that it's always been, and that's why I love it, to carrying some of that forward but it's also got to be a place that people love and want to come to because it's telling stories and it's current and it has current science.
So we're finding that tipping point. The institution ultimately can't survive by being a nostalgia factory. At the same time, we've got to absolutely respect that past that it has. The people have community ownership. They feel like they own this place, and that's a powerful advantage we have, so it's going to be an absolute challenge, and when I get it wrong, just like the "Streets of Old Milwaukee" ...
People will tell you.
The people will tell me.
Did you get anything wrong in the "Streets"? Did people complain?
It's been amazingly well-received. When it was first announced, everybody was up in arms. "They're going to ruin it, they're going to screw it up, whose dumb idea was this?" Then once it was done, it's been sort of a resounding success.
I think people were worried it would be intrusive, but things like the figures behind the door at The Pfister, I see people peering through there all the time. Those have already become sort of beloved.
They're subtle enough that it didn't ruin the sort of core experience, and that was absolutely one of the reasons we did that project, was to prove that we can take beloved content and update it without ruining it.
So that was a preview of the bigger, in a sense, philosophically, of this discussion (of a new building).
In a philosophical sense, it was, because it's, "So how do you do that? Can we actually achieve that and can we do it in a way that later we'll be able to reference back and say, look, we didn't screw that up?" You're going to have to trust that it'll carry some of this forward.
What's the lesson that you learned from that?
For me, the takeaway from that was that it is hard to overestimate Milwaukeeans' connection to this place. I knew there was some of that, but I was shocked when that article ... I remember you showing some of the things that came out of that article, and it was just like, holy moley, people are really passionate.
It's 20 commenters or whatever, but still, it represents a wider community input and I think museums pay lip service all the time to wanting to have the community feel like they're owned by the community, and be representative of the community and all these things, and most museums struggle to ever get there, so the advantage we've got is we've actually achieved that. This place is really owned by Milwaukee, but we also have to make sure that we don't let that drive every decision we make. It would be easier to be irresponsible and not change anything.
You can't have a 600,000-member board of directors?
Right, exactly. Indeed, we cannot.
What could a new museum look like, in philosophical terms?
The work we did over the last two years with Gallagher & Associates was really around two things. One was, why has the museum not been sustainable in the scenario it's been in, and then what could it look like that would both make a great museum but also make sure it's around 200 years from now, like it's going to be sustainable going forward.
Some of the things we knew going in. Some of the things about why it has not been sustainable, why it's been a challenge, I think everybody's got a pretty broad community understanding outright, that it's because it's directly related to the government and the county owning the collections, owning the building, and they haven't been able to keep up with that. People understand that. We were built the same year as the Domes, so people understand as soon as you say that, oh, you know, they get it.
The thing that was surprising, I think to all of us, and nobody went in knowing this, was when we really did the study work on what is the core issue that's been driving the challenges the museum has faced in its past. It was founded in the '60s. The city ran it for a period of time. The city's mill tax couldn't support it any more, so they transferred it to the county. The county ran it for a period of time, kept up some of the content, but the county couldn't afford it, and at some point, due to this public-private partnership, we know how that ended and what that resulted in, which was a big fiscal crisis. Those issues have been addressed and fixed, and the museum is doing well, but still is not able to afford and just keep up this building and all this content, and so the question we all have is why? What's fundamentally the issue here?
The thing that we realized is that this structure, when we built it, when the city built this museum in 1963, we were incredibly ambitious as a city, and because we’d invented the diorama, we designed this huge shell to just fill in with dioramas, to fill in with "Streets of Old Milwaukee" and walk through glacial fronts and dinosaurs because that was the mode, that was where we were on the cutting edge.
We were on the front end of what was being done in the world on dioramas and experiential exhibits. That served us really well for 30, 40 years, as we built out those exhibits, but what I think nobody thought through at that time or just didn't have a plan for was how do you keep all that stuff up? How do you build these gigantic, incredibly elaborate, incredibly expensive installations and then what do you do 30 years later when all the science is out of date and time has moved on and technology has moved on?
We filled this place in, and then maintained it at the very same time that over the last 20 years, museum footprints pretty much globally, and particularly in natural history museums, have been getting smaller. New museums are getting built and they're getting smaller and smaller and smaller, not because there's less but because technology lets you make them smaller. Media, interactives, touch screens, theatrical experiences – you can cram more content into a given amount of square footage than ever before as a museum.
I assume, the fundraising being what it is, if you can build a smaller museum, that does not hurt you in terms of raising money.
It certainly doesn't cost more, but to right-size, it matters a lot. This is the key to all this. This building, when you look at how it compares for a city this size, one of the things that makes it really special is it's huge, and you get lost in it, and it's sort of this magical experience. That's the real value and we'll have to talk about how to carry some of that forward, but it also drives incredible amounts of expense: exhibit expense, utility expense, fundraising, maintenance, upkeep, the floor staffing to keep those doors open and everything dusted and cleaned.
It drives unbelievable resource needs, and so when we looked at every museum of natural history that has been built in the world in the last 15 years – since 2000 – there's only one museum in the world that has been built that is larger than the Milwaukee Public Museum, and that is the National Museum of Natural History for China, in Shanghai, which is basically one "Streets of Old Milwaukee" bigger in its gallery space than MPM.
And it's in a metro area with 30 million people.
Thirty-plus million people, right, so if you were building this building today – if you announced, I'm going to build a museum in Milwaukee and you built this – you'd be building it for a city of 25 million. You'd build it for New York City or L.A. The reason it's not sustainable is it is too big. Now there's value in that, and there's beauty in it, and there's the part about it's beloved, but it can't sustain itself at this scale in a city of 1.7 million people.
Is there also an opportunity cost in that you have all these people who have to dust all this stuff, and have this floor staff to do all this kind of stuff, that's money you can't spend on something else?
That's absolutely true. You think about the fundraising in this community, you're raising from a fairly finite set of foundations and philanthropies and corporations. You're not raising from 25 million people to keep up a museum designed for a city of 25 million, you're raising from 1.7 million people to keep up a museum designed for a city of 25 million.
It’s a city that doesn't have anything approaching the wealth of a city like New York.
Or Chicago, in philanthropic wealth. So there is opportunity cost, and one of the better examples is, of the three-and-a-half million dollars that the county provides to help operate this museum, which is about a quarter of our operating budget, half of that amount literally flies out the windows and doors just to heat and light the building, and then to grease the wheels on the escalators. Not fixing the building, just your basic maintenance, that's a million-seven-five a year.
It's an incredible amount of money, partly because the building's not insulated, it hasn't been kept up, systems are old. If you could say, "Hey, I can right-size this museum and that utility bill's going to become $400,000," well, gee, that's like I just fundraised $1.3 million every year for the next 50 years, because I don't have to pay those expenses anymore.
If that money still does come in, you can spend it on collections or you can spend it on something, research, or something else.
Whatever it may be, right. The other sustainability long-term issue, and then I'll pivot to the questions of what does it look like or what does it start to feel like, but the other issue that we face that's a challenge for the whole community is the idea that there's going to be public dollars to continue to invest in all these cultural assets in Milwaukee, meaning direct governmental support, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now.
Nobody would be wise to bank on that as their sustainability strategy. If you bank on that, the county's going to have endless resources to just keep plowing money into these places, you're going to be out of business, because the county will be the first to say, we don't anticipate that being the case.
Right now a quarter of our budget comes from the county every year. They've been incredible partners and provided great operating support. When that number goes down, what are you going to do? You're already raising a significant amount in the community, you're in competition with every other need in the community, so you've got to come up with a strategy that makes sense for where Milwaukee's going to be 20 years or 50 years from now, and that is in a community where 100 percent of the county's tax base is taken up by pension obligations, and we have to be able to be thriving and succeeding when we get there as opposed to that becoming the next crisis or the next challenge for an institution.
So in a sense this is also a potential exit strategy from the current situation, which you think will prove untenable?
Absolutely. We're creating a museum that fundamentally the non-profit entity would own, MPM would own. They would still be the county's collections it would be exhibiting and leasing and showing there, and so the county would still have some obligation to keep those collections maintained and care for them, as long as they continue to own them, but similar to what the art museum has done, where it's kind of incrementally stepped away from being a war memorial center that is run by the county with county dollars, we've got to similarly go down that path, and I think that that's one you'll see the community needs to address in a lot of different dimensions over the coming years.
Do you think funding for a new building will include money from the county?
It's going to have to. There's no question that what we're gonna put forth in the larger plan. The county's got to be essentially the lead investor, the first one through the door, because it's their building that we're trying to solve for, it's their funding resource that is the thing that we're trying to make sure they don't need in the future, so it improves their bottom line in the end, and it's their collections.
It's also going to require state-level support in some way, shape or form. We're spending a lot of time in Madison figuring out what that would look like, and what mechanism could possibly work, but I absolutely think there's a path to that.
Are you finding some openness in Madison to that?
Yes. It's premature to know, but I think there is a incredibly strong case that this museum can make that would be hard for many culturals in Milwaukee to make, that we are a state-wide institution. We serve every county in the state, we serve every legislative district, and we've got the numbers that we show every legislator to prove it. Our collections encompass the entire state.
We are the only natural history museum of any scale in the entire state, and so unless as a state we don't want to value that and we want to take it away, there has to be some kind of state mechanism to support its advancement.
I do think that's a case that even the art museum, as great as the art museum is, and as great as that building is, that would have been a hard case for them to make. There's a Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. There is more than one other art museum in this state. Just the scale of visitation here and the state-wide support (means) there does seem to be an opening and an opportunity I think, for state-level support.
They have not slammed the door in your face?
No. I'd say the opposite. I'd say it's been a very active and engaged conversation at the state level on how to make sure that the state's biggest museum is here 100 years from now. There's a vested interest everyone has in that.
County support, state support and then you're going to have to find a mechanism for philanthropic support, for fundraising, and I think again, the other opportunity we have is that we are a state-wide institution, so we can fundraise in Madison, fundraise in Green Bay, fundraise from individuals that have been successful in Wisconsin all across the state.
I think Milwaukee has to get away from fundraising only in its own backyard a lot of the time, because I don't think that that's going to be a recipe for success long-term. We'll find what that mix looks like, and there will definitely be a way to get this done.
I've probably had 200-plus meetings in the last couple of months just to share those plans, share the visuals, share the ideas and I think once we talk it through, there is nobody that has made an argument that that is the wrong path, that we should stay in this building and try and renovate the building as it sits, or even more extreme would be to say we should just do nothing, we should kind of just wait for the end to come and just sit here.
Doing nothing is an option, you could just coast and say, oh, what can we do and throw up our hands. That is not a path that we want to take. I think generally speaking, people are excited and cautiously optimistic and hopeful that this can matter in the community, and hopefully that's the case without me, cause the community's got to want it to happen in a holistic sense for it to come to pass.
To where you started that question, which is what could it look like, right, here's what I would say, which is, we could hire the best museum designers in the world and the best teams of people to build these things out and do this great institution that would be a five-star museum in any other city in this country, and would just be the ideal, perfect, modern natural history museum.
You could open the doors on that thing and it would be an utter fail for Milwaukee, because what it didn't do or doesn't do would be to carry forward the really unique gestalt or vibe that this institution has because of its history and because of its legacy.
What is the special sauce?
To me, it's the experiential walk-through stuff, it's some of those dioramas. It's the quirky vibe and the little secret Easter eggs that are hidden around the museum, the things we've talked about in the past. It's that it doesn't put on airs, that this really does feel like a public institution, that it's not a temple on a hill.
I think all of those pieces, you've got to carry that into the future so when you open those doors on day one, people come in and say this is new, this is great, but it also feels like the Milwaukee Public Museum.
Granny is still in her chair.
Granny's still rocking on her chair. Maybe there's a few blue-carpeted walls hidden here and there. I don't know what things we identify are the things people really care for, you've got to bring some of that with you, because otherwise it is a fail.
That's really important, but on the flip side, it can't just be nostalgia. It's got to be a new institution. It's got to feel contemporary. It's got to make sense for a 12-year-old now; that feels like a museum that he wants to or she wants to go to and spend time in, because it feels like the future.
That's the risk we have in not changing is we're letting go of the future. We're deciding that we're going to stick with the here and now and the past, and that's going to have to be good enough, and I think that's not the right decision for Milwaukee.
I know this is totally putting you on the spot, but you've said that you can't not bring anything, and we understand that you can't bring everything.
We definitely cannot bring everything.
When somebody walks into this new museum, is it, and I know this is completely arbitrary, will it be 50 percent familiar stuff and 50 percent new?
You can't right-size it and have it be 50 percent familiar stuff, because there would be no room for anything new. It's bringing the very best of what is here. I'd be lying if I said I knew what that meant.
Well, we know it's the water fountain.
(Laughs) It's definitely the "Streets." One of the things we've spent the last few years doing, actually, is talking to visitors in the community, and saying what are your favorite things here? What absolutely has to be part of the future? And some of those things we knew like "Streets," duh, everybody wants "Streets." Some of them have been really surprising to us. There are things that people identify as in their top 10. The favorite example I have, and I'm not promising this is carrying forward into the future by saying this, but you know the under-sea spiral.
Oh yeah, up to the shells.
You go up and you spiral down and you're getting deeper and deeper and darker and darker and those little porthole windows. That was not on my radar as a favorite, but it comes up in the top 10 of every single survey we do. That was a big surprise.
What are some of the others?
The snake button, specifically.
But if you guys would bring the snake button, you would presumably bring the diorama...
That I do not know. Some of the historic dioramas. No question. Some that pre-date even the library, that sort of had come along to multiple sites already, as well as some of the best of, there's a large scale, and ones that have the 15-foot plate glass you can't even buy anymore in front of them. The mountain lion and the mountain deer, those kinds where just the sheer artistry and beauty of those is unparalleled. Those kinds of things make that list.
"Crossroads of Civilization" makes that list now, which is really interesting as it vaulted right into the top three or four. It's proof that you can hybridize some of that old feel and some of the retro feel with some of the new technology and things, so that was a little bit of a proof of concept.
That exhibit is a great example. That used to be "Temples, Tales & Tombs." That exhibit was 6,000 square feet. "Crossroads" is the exact same content in half the size, it's 3,000 square feet. It has immediately vaulted into the top couple of favorite exhibits. The dwell time that people spend in that exhibit is healthy and good. I would posit that it probably would outpace the dwell time people spent in the old exhibit, although we don't have the data for that from back then.
It's half the size, but it is not half the exhibit. It is a great exhibit in its own right because it's using those technology tools, and that's what we're going to have to do in a certain way with a lot of this content as we carry it forward.
What about back of house? Behind the scenes, what do you guys need that you don't have now?
A healthy building that can not damage the collections.
In terms of the environment?
Yeah. Not only is our, and you've seen this in the other articles that have been out, but not only is the building failing to protect the collections that are in storage, it's important to acknowledge it's also failing to protect the collections that are on exhibit. The core environmental conditions of this building do not by any stretch meet even the most basic of standards for museums.
Did it ever?
In 1963 they did. When the systems were new, by 1963 standards, absolutely, but that's one of the big issues. If we plowed in the $40 million to update this building, it still would not meet contemporary museum standards because you're still working with the 1963 design for HVAC and humidification and other construction pieces. You could bring it up to 1963 standards and it still won't meet contemporary museum standards.
And you still have these expenses, these utility bills and things like that. It does not solve any of that.
You still have a giant footprint. You're still missing the business pieces you need to succeed in a city this size. The example I always give, and you probably heard (my predecessor) Jay Williams talk about this back in his tenure, we're the largest urban museum of natural history that gets no parking revenue. We drive parking revenue to the city, and we've calculated that's right around a million dollars a year. So we subsidize the City of Milwaukee, which is great for the mayor, great for the city and they thank us for it, but that is revenue that then we have to go out and fundraise.
So the new building will include parking the museum would own?
It would have to have parking that the museum owns, because that's another million-dollar piece, how you solve for a future where there isn't county support? You need parking revenue, you need to right-size, you need utilities and reduced expense, you need event space. If I could get half the revenue the art museum gets from their events I'd be thrilled, because we're not set up for that. So it's all those kinds of pieces have to matter, too.
Also, we've got to solve how to care for the collections long-term. That implies that we're going to have to move those collections. Some of them are going to certainly need to be in offsite storage somewhere else in Milwaukee, Downtown or near Downtown. Some will be with the future museum, right on site with that museum. That is a model that everybody from the Smithsonian to the Field (Museum in Chicago) uses to make sure that the actively researched collections are right there and usable every day, and that the deeper storage collections are somewhere nearby and are done cost-effectively, but that's going to be a big piece of it.
We've got to figure out what the partnerships and research arm of the museum looks like going forward. That was an area of this museum that was absolutely decimated when it had its fiscal crisis, because you've got to still keep this giant building open, so you can't reduce security, you can't reduce the front line. What they did is we lost a lot of scientific knowledge and staff and collections care staff, and so we've got to rebuild some of that expertise, but the way you do it in a museum now is through partnership.
So it's joining partners with Marquette, with UWM. We're bringing out a new curator this spring who's coming from Indiana University, from Purdue, IUPUI, who's a really well-known researcher in her field and really wants to move from writing journal articles to having public impact, and so she's decided this is where she wants to be, and she's coming this spring so she's also going to be teaching at Marquette.
We're working on a communications of science program with Marquette to bridge between the two. It's those kinds of partnerships have to develop. You have to figure out a scientific and research structure for the museum that makes sense in the future, and then you've got to have the exhibits and all the business pieces and all that stuff, too. It's that mix.
Let's talk about amenities.
You need to have a restaurant where you can get a nice glass of wine and some good food. People have a much higher standard of what they expect a cultural institution to provide now than they did when this museum was built initially, just sort of having a cafeteria is the baseline, but you've got to have several levels above that for a large portion of an audience.
I feel like you guys have done a good job with what you have in terms of getting the coffee shop in there, the options that are in the cafeteria, it's way better than some other places in town.
We're trying to find the sweet spot of that. Also have to have a good two-dollar hot dog. You don’t want to outpace your audience.
But the options are limited. You go to the Field Museum, for example, and they have a Corner Bakery where you can sit down, they have a bar.
There's multiple options. If you want to spend more money, there's a nice restaurant; if you want to spend less, there's a cafeteria. That segmentation of audience and opportunities and revenue is what every museum looks at now.
We talked a little bit about this in vague terms, what's going to go into your location search?
We're still working that through. At this point, nothing's off the table. Even if I did know, I wouldn't tell you. But I don't know.
What are some of the factors that are going into that? Obviously cost is one.
Cost is going to be one. There's obviously going to be both politics in the sense of public politics and politics in the sense of donors. If there's lead donor who wants it to be in a specific place, that may have an impact. If the mayor or the governor wants it in a specific place in Milwaukee, that may have an impact on the conversation.
There's going to be audience. I think it's really important that we be accessible by public transportation, or figure out a path to be able to do that if the site isn't, it's going to have to be made accessible. I think it's got to be a site that feels truly public.
I think museums suffer when they feel like they're placed in a part of a community that not the whole community feels welcome, so one of the advantages of this site and this side of town, frankly, is it feels like it's for everybody because it's where criminal justice is and buses come here and it's not a sort of exclusive part of town, so I think it's important that wherever we land, we either bring some of that vibe with us, or we end up in a place that has some of that.
We're one of the most diversely utilized institutions in the city. The audience here looks like Milwaukee, and you could lose that if you did it in the wrong way or went to the wrong part of the city without thinking it through, so wherever we land we're going to have to make sure we carry that with us.
And then it's the adjacencies question. How do we as a city get more out of building a new museum than just, hey, that's a great new museum, standing there all by itself? How do you make sure that it's driving economic impact and city development and restaurants and other amenities developing around it?
One of the problems of this particular site is it's just kind of an island. You can come down here as a family, there's no place else to go to get a bite to eat. There's no place to go shop. The only other thing you can do is go check out a library book, or go get a divorce over at the courthouse, right? Those are your family options.
How do you make sure that what we do actually impacts the city? We sell as many tickets in a year as the Bucks. How do you get more out of that and have that be an economic and cultural driver for the city as opposed to just, it goes here and good luck to it?
So you're looking for complementary relationships, like, for argument's sake, at the Lakefront with the art museum and Discovery World.
Could be the Lakefront or the arena district or Menomonee Valley, or wherever it goes, it's how do you get the most bang as a city. In Milwaukee, one of the areas we really need to strengthen our community is cultural planning and the larger narrative of how we use these opportunities to advance a bigger narrative in our city. We're only going to do this once in our lifetime, so how do we get the most out of this?
One last question for you. You're a design guy, right, so are you already thinking about, here's my chance to fix that one thing that drives me crazy? Is it in your head already?
The moment the board gets whiff of me getting involved in design, they should rightfully fire me. That is not what I'm here to do. I'm like everyone, I've got opinions. I've been involved in museums for 25 years, so I know what I like, but I'm one voice among many, so no. I'm not going to go there. That would be bad news.
That said, I do think what's important is that we aim high. This is an institution and this is a city that deserves some significant ambition. The goal is not to just do a, hey, it's a solid B. The art museum reset the bar on this community for what it means to create a signature institution, and while we are not going to be using a starchitect or going to quite that direction, that doesn't mean that we cannot build something that creates great public space, that is a great amenity, that becomes a signature part of the city, that gets to being more than just the sum of its parts.
That's what Milwaukee needs to do on every level as a city right now. We need to aim higher. As a Milwaukeean, I grew up here, we are sometimes too nice about the city we live in. We need to aim higher and be harsher and try harder, and I think that's what the museum is going to do with this project. That's my goal is to just really push it in that direction, and don't settle for a B.
This needs to be an A+, and that's what this city deserves.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.