In the second of its five exhibition gallery reveals, Milwaukee Public Museum on Thursday unveiled some details of the Wisconsin Journey section of the Future Museum, due to open in 2026 at 6th and McKinley.
The Wisconsin Journey will explore and highlight the state's natural and cultural landscapes, noted the announcement, made in conjunction with Thinc Design, the museum’s exhibition design partner.
The first reveal – of the Time Travel gallery – took place earlier this month.
As with that first unveiling, the renderings accompanying the Wisconsin Journey reveal show a museum of a style similar to the current venue, with dioramas, trees and rocks dotting recreated immersive landscapes, with some screens but not notably more than are currently found in the museum.
Renderings and information show that familiar features of the museum, like the prairieland bison display and the Hebior Mammoth dig site, are included in Future Museum plans.
The reveal should provide comfort to those who are uncomfortable with the pending move.
"We let our gut and feedback from audiences tell us what are the things that people (want to see)," says Thinc Design Senior Exhibit Designer Oronde Wright. "We know that, for example, the bison is a diorama that really has an impact. But we also know that currently as it is displayed it's not the most accurate depiction of those bison.
"That gives us the opportunity to really think about what is the appropriate depiction to still bring those very dramatic beasts and really put them into a context that is exciting, but also teaches about the animal in a fun and interesting way."
Wright's colleague – Thinc's Senior Curator, Experience & Interpretation Helen Divjak – points to a number of familiar objects that are planned for the new gallery, including the beaver den diorama, a deerscape and the family of bears foraging honey to the displeasure of bees.
"There's things that we fell in love with," she says, "just as much as people who've been going to the museum for generations have. So it was a mix of our instinct, but also very much listening to the visitors, because the MPM team has done an incredible job at reaching out to thousands, tens of thousands of visitors and getting their input.
"Getting an idea of what people have really fallen in love with and what's resonated with them has very, very much influenced what we've chosen to bring over and give me life to."
But, Divjak adds, "it's not a matter of just picking something up and moving it. It's not like you can put something in a shoebox. We have to very carefully reimagine these artifacts, these scenes, and give them a new life in a new building and that has opportunity opportunities and challenges."
Many of the objects on display have also been out in the open – in the light, in the air – for a long time, too, notes Milwaukee Public Museum's Chief Planning Officer Katie Sanders.
"It's also important to say that some of the things that are on display need to rest," Sanders says. "So there's also consideration of being able to, in order to preserve the items, take them off display for a period of time. That calculation is also being weighed into what will be on display in the new galleries."
The exhibition gallery will somewhat mirror that statewide tour encompassing the Driftless Area, Prairie, Apostle Islands, Northwoods, Great Lakes and Door Peninsula.
“At the outset of this once-in-a-generation project, MPM staff took a tour of Wisconsin with our design partners to draw inspiration from the natural landscapes and cultural traditions that make Wisconsin a diverse, unique place,” said MPM President & CEO Dr. Ellen Censky.
“That tour underscored the importance of and value in learning about the familiar, and the Museum determined it wanted to explore Wisconsin in a way not done before.”
The statewide tour is discussed in more detail in this recent interview with the Future Museum architects.
"One of the most exciting aspects of the trip was we really got to see a variety of perspectives on different parts of the land," adds Wright. "We spoke with people that really had this intimacy with the land to help us tease out things that the average person may not think about. Being able to take those moments of intimacy and bring them into the exhibit is something we're super excited to do."
Divjak says that the new gallery will enhance the museum's focus on its home state.
"The current museum is fantastic, but it doesn't have the same sort of focus on Wisconsin that we're trying to achieve, where this museum can really be the natural history museum of Wisconsin," she says. "One of the things we're trying to pull to the forefront are the voices of the people who live on the land now and showing how those traditions go back generations.
"Whether it's an indigenous canoe maker who's been learning about their trade for generations from their ancestors, whether it's a farmer – we met with a Taiwanese farmer who was second generation, who was very involved with migrant workers – we're looking at Wisconsin not only in terms of its history, but what's happening now and how people here are impacting the land and the lifeways now, and how that is going to reflect on the future."
Wright promised that the Future Museum will have even more so-called easter eggs, hidden features – like the snake buttons – whose discovery can spark joy.
Here are exhibit examples released on Thursday, with descriptions provided by MPM and Thinc Design ...
Untouched by the grinding glaciers that shaped the rest of the state, the Driftless Area is evidence of an ancient Wisconsin that continues to be shaped and reshaped by its diverse inhabitants – old and new. In the Wisconsin Journey gallery’s Driftless area, visitors will explore the region’s unique geological history and the ways in which the land has shaped Wisconsinites and industry – particularly lead mining.
Lead Mine Look-In
In this exhibit, visitors will learn why Wisconsin is known as the Badger State – not after the animals, but for the 19th-century lead miners who sheltered in dens, reminiscent of badgers’ burrows (or “setts”), dug into southwestern Wisconsin hillsides.
“The history of lead mining is a prime example of how nature and culture intersect,” said Divjak, a lead designer on the Future Museum project. “In diving deep into Wisconsin, visitors will be able to see and understand the intimate connections Wisconsinites past and present have with the land.”
The Lead Mine Look-in will be a key immersive exhibit and make visitors feel like they are in a dark lead mine, telling the stories of galena, one of the country’s first “rushes” and Indigenous mining, as a way to illustrate the strong connection between the state’s unique nature, the culture and practices that developed in response to the land and how the two interact and impact one another.
Wisconsin is celebrated for its lakes, but the state’s vast system of rivers have played an equally important role in the region’s ecological and cultural history.
Visitors will be able to explore waterways through a tactile map of Wisconsin’s most significant rivers, the Mississippi and Wisconsin, to better understand how the region’s watery highways have connected people to the land, and to each other, for millennia. Alongside displays about human control of the rivers’ paths, visitors will encounter MPM’s famous beaver den and explore how the beaver is a controversial teacher when it comes to flood prevention and sustainable water management practices.
Another place of note within the Driftless Area is the Wisconsin Dells, known for its distinctive Cambrian sandstone formations. Visitors will explore this unique geological history, including how the many characteristic features of this landscape were shaped and why the Dells has been such a popular destination for tourists throughout the ages.
Wisconsin is known for its vast prairielands. In the Prairie, visitors will find out what makes this landscape – both above and below ground – so verdant, resilient and attractive to those who have cultivated the land and made it an agricultural force.
Prairieland Bison Display
At the forefront of the Prairie area, visitors will encounter an exhibit of a bison, or American buffalo, featuring a specimen currently on display at MPM and learn about the animal’s role as a keystone species, including how that role has changed over time, Indigenous connections, extirpation of the species in Wisconsin and ongoing restoration efforts.
Hebior Mammoth Dig Site
The story of the Hebior Mammoth will carry through from the Time Travel gallery all the way to the Prairie, offering visitors multiple perspectives on one of the Museum’s most significant specimens and the opportunity to touch a cast of the fossil. The Hebior Mammoth Dig Site exhibit will be a core scene in the gallery’s Prairie area, demonstrating to visitors how the giant Mammoth bones emerged from the dirt – as if just discovered by John Hebior – and asking questions about what the soil and its contents can teach us about life in Wisconsin.
“Visitors have long been greeted by the Hebior Mammoth, which stands in our current lobby space. Discovered in Kenosha County on the property of John Hebior, 85 percent of the mammoth’s bones are intact and present – making the find significant for that reason alone. By analyzing marks on the bones, scientists have determined the animal was alive alongside its human butchers about 14,500 years ago – proving humans were in Wisconsin 1,000 years earlier than was previously thought,” said Dr. Censky.
“In the Future Museum’s Wisconsin Journey gallery, we want visitors to come to understand stories like this one that illustrate just how incredible and significant our state is to scientific discovery.”
Through this exhibit, visitors will unearth stories about the Ice Age, mammoth migration and the roots and soil beneath the surface.
Other exhibits in the Prairie will demonstrate how humans have impacted Wisconsin’s prairies, how the landscape supports human communities and how prairie inhabitants work together to create a community. Visitors will learn about European immigrants’ agricultural knowledge and practices, have the chance to observe a contemporary Grass Dancer powwow outfit, watch a video of the Grass Dance being performed and hear a first-person description of the Grass Dance’s importance in certain Indigenous traditions.
At the state’s northernmost edge, the Apostle Islands are a beautiful natural sanctuary. In the Future Museum, visitors will be able to witness the wonder of the Apostle Islands with immersive environmental elements that shift from summer to winter.
A combination of graphic and tactile scenic and environmental elements recreates the rocky caves of Devils Island as the landscape transitions from the warmth of summer to the icy stillness of winter.
Overhead, visitors will see on display a flock of migratory bird specimens from the collections, suspended as if in flight, demonstrating one way life in and around the state shifts across seasons and highlighting the many native specimens in the Museum’s care. The story of migration will carry through all of Wisconsin Journey, and visitors may notice more migratory birds soaring across other galleries of the Future Museum, too.
The Northwoods is a special place of wonder for so many Wisconsinites, and the exhibits in this area will explore what makes it one of the many unique and memorable regions within the state. Visitors will find exhibits depicting a rich woodland landscape and discover how the Northwoods – and the habits and habitats of its residents and visitors – shifts through the seasons.
Exhibits will display the landscapes and plant, animal and human communities that make the region such a distinct place and will highlight those who best know the Northwoods, sharing unique stories, memories and understandings they have of the region.
Natural Cycles in the Northwoods
Throughout Wisconsin Journey, each distinct area will be augmented with diorama scenes, naturalistic lighting effects and environmental audioscapes that bring the gallery’s exhibits to life. In Northwoods, choreographed lighting and soundscapes will shift the woodland space from day into night; stars will replace clouds in an environmental ceiling treatment and the hoot of an owl will replace bird song. After a few minutes, “daylight” will return and the cycle will begin again.
In addition to transitions from day to night, Northwoods will focus on Wisconsin’s distinct seasons. Visitors will be prompted to pay close attention to how forest communities behave in the ever-changing environment of each of Wisconsin’s four seasons through dioramas like the honey bears, which current MPM visitors know and love.
This gallery section will also depict some examples of how humans mark the season, how these cultural practices developed in relation to Wisconsin’s natural cycles and stories of nocturnal animals, stars and astronomy, such as the Northern Lights. Throughout Wisconsin Journey – and the Future Museum as a whole – Indigenous stories will anchor exhibits and galleries to teach us about the various cultures and relationships that impact and are impacted by the land.
Three more reveals are scheduled in the coming months and they are ...
- April 14: Milwaukee Revealed
- May 9: Living in a Dynamic World and Mixing Zones
- May 23: Rainforest, Puelicher Butterfly Vivarium and the Bucyrus Rooftop Terrace
Stay tuned to OnMilwaukee for more on the reveals and the Future Museum.
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 has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.