By Jason Haas Milwaukee County Supervisor, 14th District Published Mar 09, 2022 at 4:01 PM Photography: Bobby Tanzilo

The future of the Milwaukee Public Museum is now a little more certain.

Yesterday, a joint meeting of two Milwaukee County Board committees and Parks, Energy & Environment Committee gave initial approval to the proposal to issue $45 million public funding for the museum’s next incarnation.

The full Milwaukee County Board and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley must also approve to the deal before it can take effect.

This transition is necessary, for the building that currently houses the museum is not only in disrepair, but its design is unsuitable for this purpose.

The building at North 7th and West Wells Streets has sewer mains and electrical conduits running through the building’s basement, alongside the museum’s priceless collection of artifacts and specimens. There is no weatherproofing above the third floor, allowing cold and moisture to intrude.

Major leaks in walls and ceilings are common, requiring the county to spend about a million dollars each year on repairs. The potential cost of damage to the collection from a broken sewer main or electrical fire is incalculable.

Because of these factors, the American Museum Alliance, the organization that certifies and accredits natural history museums, has ordered MPM management to develop a plan to move the museum to a different building of suitable quality, and relocate the collection to a separate site.

If it stayed in the current building, MPM would lose its accreditation – a death knell for the institution. Federal grants, academic research and traveling exhibits would no longer come to the museum.

It would effectively have to close, leaving the crumbling building and the four-million-specimen collection housed within it as the responsibility of the county government.

Repairing the building and bringing it up to code for an office building would cost tens of millions of dollars. Bringing it up to modern museum standards would be another tenfold increase, which is far beyond the county’s ability.

With an April 2022 deadline in place, MPM quickly got to work. First, it secured a commitment from the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum to join the new natural history museum at a new site at North 6th Street and West McKinley Avenue.

Second, the Museum successfully secured $40 million in funding from the Wisconsin Legislature – a huge win for this Milwaukee institution. Upon approval of the county funding, work will begin on an ambitious $150 million in private fundraising campaign. This formidable task will be possible with the full backing of the county and the state of Wisconsin.

However, the State’s support is hinged upon two important actions: that Milwaukee County provide $45 million in funding, and that the new museum will be called the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture.

This reflects the museum’s statewide appeal, and presumably serves the interests of legislators who cast aspersions upon the Cream City. While the institution’s name will change, several Milwaukee County Supervisors, including myself, demanded that “Milwaukee” remain featured within the museum’s identity.

The new site will be called the Milwaukee Museum Commons, featuring the Milwaukee County Collection. This reflects that both the new natural history museum and Betty Brinn Children’s Museum will be housed there.

The $45 million bonding commitment will translate to a property tax increase, albeit one which can be done without directly impacting county services. At the same time, the County will have to figure out what to do with the old building, which remains County property.

Some good news: beloved features such as the butterfly exhibit, and parts of MPM’s famous dioramas will make it into the new museum. While the future of @MPMsnake remains unclear, I hope the fantastic “T. Rex eating a triceratops” diorama will chill children’s blood for years to come.

Final County Board approval is needed within this month’s legislative cycle. With that, the future will be set. Farewell, Milwaukee Public Museum – and hello, Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture.