After years of patching up their aging building, Milwaukee Public Museum officials had to pivot suddenly to a different kind of damage control.
For the past few days, museum representatives have been scrambling to patch up relations with zealous fans who reacted passionately to what two top museum leaders said – and perhaps even more to what they didn’t say – in a MilMag Interview from our January issue.
Describing what visitors will see when the museum’s planned new home opens in 2026, MPM President Ellen Censky said, “Entire exhibits will not move over, but elements will.” She added, “The two things that we know will be going over, but will be reimagined — they will not look the same in any way — are the butterfly vivarium, because that is one of if not the most popular exhibit, and then the planetarium.”
When the museum posted a link to our article on its Facebook page on Friday, its most loyal followers saw that Censky wasn’t guaranteeing that the new facility would include the Streets of Old Milwaukee, the European Village or many of their other favorites, but she was promising that any exhibit that did move would change significantly.
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Fans responded by sending out an SOS – Save Our Streets! – the predominant theme of hundreds of comments on the original post. They also launched two petitions on Change.org, demanding that the iconic exhibit be preserved. The museum tried to clarify its position Tuesday, in a Twitter thread and in another Facebook post that drew hundreds more comments.
Here’s what that exchange revealed about what the new building will and won’t include, and why:
Change comes hard to Milwaukee …
In the interview, MPM Chief Planning Officer Katie Sanders acknowledged that in feedback sessions “one of the things we’ve heard loud and clear from this community is that there are a lot of aspects of the current museum that people value.”
Fans left no doubt how much they valued the Streets exhibit, a walk-through diorama showcasing the buildings of a bygone Milwaukee.
“The streets of Milwaukee ARE history,” one commenter wrote. “Our grandparents, parents and children have loved this time-honored tradition. To not incorporate it is to spit in the face of history itself. Absolute tragedy. … I feel like my childhood is being erased.”
More than a few fans punctuated their comments with threats to boycott the new museum or drop their memberships if it doesn’t include the Streets and the adjacent European Village, a collection of houses reflecting Milwaukee’s ethnic roots. One Change.org petition, started on Monday, had gathered more than 1,900 signatures by noon Wednesday, while a second such petition had attracted less than three dozen signatures.
… But change is coming
In the interview, Censky and Sanders stressed that they wanted to “refresh” the museum and update it to appeal to future generations while still retaining some familiar aspects. The reaction to their comments shows the tightrope that they’re walking in a city where some people want their grandchildren to have the same experiences as their grandparents.
However, in its follow-up Facebook post, the museum says change is inevitable, because moving the Streets isn’t a viable option.
“Most of our exhibits, like the Streets of Old Milwaukee, have elements that are built into the current facility,” the post says. “Deconstructing those in a way that won’t damage them and using those exact same materials to reconstruct them in a differently shaped building would be nearly impossible, not to mention excessively expensive and time-consuming. What we can do is create new built-ins that create the same immersive, engaging experience that you know and love at MPM.”
… And some fans are OK with that
While listening to visitors’ feedback, the museum’s follow-up post says, “We’ve heard everything from ‘don’t change a thing’ to ‘the museum needs a complete overhaul.’ Where we want to land is somewhere in the middle, which means a mix of familiar favorites and what we hope will be some new favorites.”
Some Facebook commenters, apparently in the minority, agreed with the museum’s thinking.
“I truly hope MPM has taken notes from Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, and (Adler) Planetarium in Chicago,” a commenter wrote. “Innovation, beauty in design and interactivity are essential. If Milwaukee is trying to stay up to par, it has to stop holding on to the ‘old look’ of things. MKE has so much untapped potential!”
The “Streets” will rise again … sort of
Fans who won’t settle for anything less than keeping the Streets of Old Milwaukee in its current form will be disappointed, but a new version of the exhibit – with a new name – is on the way.
In its follow-up post, the museum says, “One of those exhibit galleries will be a highly immersive walk-through of Milwaukee that explores our marvelous city’s history, nature and cultures. It will not be called ‘Streets of Old Milwaukee,’ as all exhibits are getting new names.”
That was the first indication that the new museum will feature something like the Streets, as well as the first word of a complete renaming of exhibits.
You’ll still have buttons to push
Perhaps the museum’s least-kept secrets are the hidden buttons that bring three of its dioramas to life. Two exhibits have buttons that make rattlesnakes rattle, while a third exhibit’s button makes a howler monkey howl.
After one Facebook commenter remarked, “The only thing that matters to me is the snake button,” a museum moderator responded, “Not only will there be a snake button in some form, but expect other fun, engaging surprises!”
That was the first confirmation that the new museum would include any kind of hidden button.
Screens won’t rule
As fans fretted that talk of modern interactive exhibits would just mean a whole bunch of computer screens, a museum moderator repeatedly assured them that it wouldn’t.
“It absolutely will NOT be a museum of screens,” the moderator wrote on Facebook.
More specimens will come out of the closet
Only 6% to 8% of the 4 million items in the museum’s county-owned collection are on display in the current museum, Censky noted in the interview. In its follow-up Facebook post, the museum elaborated on previous comments about showing visitors more of those items.
“There are millions of objects and specimens behind the scenes that have never been on display before,” the museum wrote. “We think it’s time to share some of those with you, and maybe even have some objects on rotation so you are exposed to new collections items throughout your visits.”
Further details about the new museum will be unveiled this spring, the follow-up post says. Judging from the social media exchange, fans can’t wait to hear more.