Meet the Woman Transforming the Milwaukee Public Museum

A biologist with a knack for bringing science to the public, Ellen Censky is point woman in transforming the Milwaukee Public Museum for the 21st century.

Ellen Censky steps off the escalator and onto the second floor of the Milwaukee Public Museum. She greets a custodial worker who has just finished wiping down a display case filled with models of native North American crops. Censky, who stands over 6 feet tall and exudes a gentle calm, walks towards the center of the floor. She pauses at Tribute to Survival, a 1993 exhibit that centers around a modern Native American powwow. The scene features 37 life-size figures, all of them unique and based on real members of Wisconsin’s seven Native tribes. “It was a true collaboration,” says Censky, 65. “The exhibit was done with a representative from every Wisconsin tribe. It’s a phenomenal exhibit, but then you turn around and see something very different.” 

Just a few away from Tribute to Survival sits the Plains Indian Hunt. One of the museum’s most iconic displays, the 1966 diorama shows two Native Americans riding through a herd of bison. Though beautifully crafted – painted prairie skies, taxidermized buffalo tipped onto their hind legs, the famous rattlesnake – the installation includes two nearly identical mannequins, both of which play on old stereotypes. “It’s so bad,” says Censky, who has served as museum president and CEO since June 2019. “The fact that they thought they could represent a whole people with the same two mannequins is not good.” 

Together, the two exhibits offer a road map of sorts: The white, Eurocentric perspective the Public Museum has embodied for most of its 140-year history and a more diverse, inclusive one that sits at the heart of Censky’s vision for the future. “Exhibits that represent cultures need to have voices coming from those cultures,” says Censky. That includes how different cultures are shaped by the environment, a dynamic that runs much deeper than animal hunts. “All stories start with the natural world. Most major migrations of people can be traced back to an environmental problem. Those are the kinds of things we want to bring forward: how the natural world impacts human culture and how we, in turn, impact the natural world. It’s a continuous yin and yang.” 

But before Censky can address those ideas, she must start with something more concrete – literally. After years under leaky pipes, poor insulation and inadequate climate control, the MPM is finally moving to a new home. In September, Censky announced the new Public Museum would be built on 2.4 Downtown acres on the northwest corner of Sixth and McKinley streets. Identifying a location was just the first step. What comes next is much harder. Now, Censky must ask Wisconsinites to bid farewell to the iconic institution and embrace something new. “We’re building a museum not just for now, but for future generations,” says Censky. “Nostalgia won’t carry us forward. We have to change.” 

— Sponsored Video —

Censky may believe that all stories start from the natural world because hers does, too. 

The third-youngest among six brothers and one sister growing up in Cedarburg, Censky was a tomboy. She’d build forts in the yard and ride her bike to the woods where she’d watch for foxes. On family camping trips – the only vacations her parents could afford with eight children – she’d wake up early with her father to fish for sunfish, which they would then bring back to the campsite for breakfast. “I was always outside,” recalls Censky. “I never felt afraid to be outside. I felt so at home and at peace in the outdoors.” 

One of her most beloved spots to visit, and the place that piqued Censky’s interest in animals, was her uncle’s farmhouse west of Cedarburg. The house, which sat at the top of a hill that descended into both woods and farm fields, offered endless entertainment. On one such occasion, Censky, then 14, heard an unusual sound. “There was a huge chorus of frogs in the pond,” recalls Censky. “I remember watching the frogs for hours on end. That was my first study on herps.” 

Though Censky would eventually receive a doctorate in herpetology – the study of amphibians and reptiles – she wouldn’t come to that decision for more than a decade. She first enrolled as an undergraduate at UW-Milwaukee where she studied zoology. That major got Censky a grant to work at the Public Museum, studying the carabid beetle with an evolutionary biologist. “My job was basically to evert the genitalia, release the muscle in potassium hydroxide, tweak them, and put them on a little point,” says Censky, exuding enthusiasm. “I believe I have mounted more beetles and pulled more beetle genitalia than anybody in this state.” 

The accomplishment delighted Censky, but the broader implications inspired her. “It was the idea of being able to discover new knowledge and be part of that process,” says Censky. “Even if it’s some little thing, it gives you a reason for having been on the planet.” 

Censky holding a large sea turtle in the collections area at Carnegie Museum of Natural History in 1981.

After Censky graduated in 1979, she took a preparator position at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, where her time was split between assembling bird skins and amphibians and reptile skeletons for the museum’s research collection. If mounting beetles ignited a zeal for preparator work in Censky, working with pigeons squashed it. “Their skin is so thin. You look at them the wrong way and they fall apart,” laughs Censky. “I’d write these little nasty notes about pigeons and roll them up and stick them inside the bodies. Someday someone is going to X-ray those birds and find little notes from a frustrated Ellen Censky.” 

Censky’s work in the amphibian and reptile department, however, reminded the young scientist why she loved the field. “The curator, Jack McCoy, was a fascinating and consummate teacher,” says Censky. “He encouraged me to do my own research. And I really like the research, so I went and got a PhD at University of Pittsburgh, which was right across the street.” 

For her doctorate, Censky studied sexual selection in lizards on Anguilla, an island in the Caribbean. There, she spent four summers tracking a group of male lizards and documenting how the biggest ones – those that could fight off competition – mated with the most females. (Her most popular academic talk was titled “Sex and Violence in Lizards.”) Censky also continued her work at the Carnegie, where she eventually became the chairman of the life science department. But after 20 years at the museum, she was ready for a change. “I looked at some of the people who had been at the museum for 40 years, and they didn’t seem that happy,” she says. “I didn’t want to end up in the same place they were.” 

In 1998, Censky left Pittsburgh for Connecticut, where she took the job of director at the State Museum of Natural History. That same year, her study of a 200-mile migration of iguanas from Guadeloupe to Anguilla was published in the prestigious science journal Nature and landed on the front page of The New York Times. Censky, never one to boast or brag, describes the experience this way: “It was exciting.”

From there, Censky moved onto the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, where she served as director and CEO for five years. In every setting, Censky made it her mission to find ways to share her awe for the natural world. In an era of misinformation, museums remain among the most trusted organizations. They play a critical role in democratizing information – science especially – and fostering learning. For Censky, it was never a question of whether a museum should educate the public, but how best to do so. “The stories in the natural world are so beautiful and bizarre,” says Censky. “My approach has always been that you capture audiences with the interesting. Show them the facts in a way that involves them, and then offer a deeper understanding of, ‘How did it get this way?’” 

Enter BioBlitz, an event that Censky piloted at the Pittsburgh museum, which brings together dozens of scientists and invites the public to help them record every species they can find, dead or alive, over a 24-hour period. “It was a way to get the public to understand what we do as natural history museums,” says Censky. In the 23 years since BioBlitz launched, the event has become a phenomenon. It’s been adopted by organizations around the country including the National Geographic Society, which now runs a BioBlitz series. “Ellen really believes in sharing science with everyone,” says Wendy Gram, who ran the education department at the Sam Noble Museum. “It’s about sharing the wonder of the natural world and how people fit into that. She has a vision that it’s really about the connections and interrelationships.” 

Censky brought the BioBlitz program with her when she returned to Milwaukee to join the Public Museum as senior vice president in 2008. At the time, the museum was recovering from years of financial mismanagement and major layoffs. Censky was brought in to help rebuild the institution’s research arm, the same group that had once set her on her path. “The curatorial departments were really downsized, and the morale was quite low,” says Censky. “It was really important to figure out how to reinvigorate the research and collections departments.” 

One of Censky’s early moves was strengthening the partnerships between the museum and nearby universities. She created adjunct positions for faculty from Marquette University, UW-Milwaukee and UW-Whitewater. She offered researchers offices and access to the museum collections. “Really, the idea was that if we could provide them access to materials for their research, they could become experts when we’re building our exhibits.” 

The idea worked. By 2018 – when Censky took over as interim president and CEO, before taking the position permanently – the research departments had again become dynamic, exciting spaces. “As of last year, we were actually trying to find more offices for our researchers,” says Censky. 

But the work wasn’t done yet. With an accreditation review that would assess the museum’s finances, mission and care of its collections looming, Censky had to find the county-owned museum a new home fast. If MPM lost its accreditation, it could lose the ability to host traveling exhibitions or apply for major grants. Donors would likely cut ties, and attracting new ones would prove difficult. Put another way, if Censky did not secure a new location, MPM risked closing for good

Over the next two years, Censky and her team investigated hundreds of potential locations, including one adjacent to the Mitchell Park Domes. Censky needed a site that was large, centrally located and suitable to build on. In September, she chose the Schlitz Park site, which is currently divided into three parcels of land, to build a brand new 230,000-square-foot building that will house both the Public Museum and Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. (MPM has not yet revealed an architect or exhibition design team; Censky plans to make announcements in 2021.) 

With a location now secured, Censky must consider the next steps. First up, how to move the museum’s 4 million-piece research collection. When asked about the intricacies of such an undertaking, Censky points to a 10-minute video she keeps on hand. Titled “Follow the Object: The Art and Science of Relocating Collections,” the clip details the meticulous, costly steps required to move a collection that includes 15,000-year-old bones. 

It goes something like this: First an object must be registered, then examined and vacuumed. Once clean, the object is photographed and packed in a crate hand-built specifically to the dimensions of the object. After that, it’s tracked, transported and stored. By the time it arrives at its final destination, each piece will have been checked several times over. Not long ago, Censky asked paleontologists to estimate how long it might take to move the museum’s million-piece dinosaur collection. Their answer? Eight years. “There are a lot of spinning plates,” says Censky. Hugely valuable plates. 

Then, there are the exhibits themselves. Much of Censky’s vision for the new museum is outlined in a 50-page “vision book.” In it are five core themes – Change and Evolution; Forces and Relations; Migration and Habitat; Sustaining Life and Ways of Knowing – that will permeate the entire museum. “Our strength is our natural history and cultural collections,” says Censky. “That intersection of human culture and nature is something no other institution in this state can talk about.” 

Leading the effort to rethink how the new museum will represent different cultures and communities is Katie Sanders, the museum’s chief planning officer. Sanders, who formerly ran Safe & Sound, the local nonprofit that focuses on community building, has held several dozen community engagement workshops. In them, she asks Milwaukeeans what they want from their public museum. “A lot of people have said, ‘I want to be able to see myself in the museum,’” says Sanders. “That means really challenging the roles museums have played. It means thinking about the museum from multiple lenses, especially when it comes to the presentation of history.” 

The process isn’t easy, but that doesn’t deter Censky. “It’s harder and it’s messier,” she says, “but we’re committed to doing this because it’s the right thing to do.” 

As for what that could actually look like, Censky has a few ideas. The Silurian Reef, for example, could transform from a reconstruction that sits behind glass to an immersive, room-size experience where visitors can walk through a digital projection of the reef. The Bison Hunt, too, could illustrate a much more comprehensive story that describes how Wisconsin Native tribes adapted to a wide variety of landscapes. Or take the Salt Lick in the Bamboo Forest, one of Censky’s favorite exhibits in the museum. The display, which currently includes an elephant, bongos, warthogs and monkeys, could have a digital overlay of a human who lives and navigates that same rainforest. 

But Censky doesn’t want visitors to hold onto those ideas or expect to find those same exhibits in the new museum. “You won’t be walking in and just seeing the same exhibits,” says Censky. “They will all be reimagined.” 

Finally, there’s the matter of paying for it all. The museum expects the total cost of the project, including moving collections, constructing the new building and more, to be about $240 million. It is planning to launch a nine-figure capital campaign to raise funds for the project. Fundraising from private sources is expected to cover $100 million to $150 million of the total cost. 

With a colleague analyzing an iguana in Anguilla, 1996.

As for the remaining $90 million to $140 million, Censky has previously cited the state’s $70 million commitment to the new Wisconsin History Museum. That museum, however, is operated by the state, and it may be a longshot to think legislators would go for that much state funding for a county museum. And given the county’s fiscal limitations – it’s anticipating a budget deficit as high as $60 million next year – those prospects aren’t great either. 

Censky is the right woman for the difficult job, says P.J. DiStefano, chairman of MPM’s board. “Ellen is exactly who the museum needs right now,” he says. “She has the vision and the ability to execute. She knows how to lead and build a team. This is an all-hands-on-deck initiative.” 

Sitting in the garden in her Wauwatosa backyard on a chilly fall morning, Censky leans back in a chair. She has just returned from a weekend at her brother’s cabin in the Northwoods. Her Ford pickup, which sits in the driveway, has surely made that same journey many times. “I can’t go too long without being out in nature,” says Censky. “It makes me feel whole – like a rejuvenation.” 

Behind her, two squirrels chase one another across a branch, and a cardinal sits atop a birdfeeder. The wind blows a swirl of leaves onto the ground. “I like to think that’s the wind breathing,” she says, looking up at the trees. She pulls on her jacket. Censky doesn’t have to be in the museum today, so she’s dressed in her weekend wear: jeans, New Balance sneakers and a zip-up fleece. She’s visibly relaxed in her personal oasis. It’s here that Censky seeks respite from the demanding job of rebuilding a beloved behemoth of an institution. If all goes according to plan, the new Milwaukee Public Museum will open in 2026. 

Censky will undoubtably find herself here often over the next five years, soaking in the serene quilt of colors and sounds. Censky began planting in 2008 when she bought the house. Now the garden, which centers around a dry creek bed that collects water in heavy rainfall, features a variety of prairie flora including monarda, thoroughwort, and queen of the prairie. Many of the plants bloomed early this year, but Censky has come to expect such changes. As any gardener knows, no two seasons are the same. Plants grow and evolve. They never stand still. Change, after all, is the most basic law of nature.


FREELANCER ELLY FISHMAN PROFILED JAN SERR AND JOHN SHANNON IN THE OCTOBER ISSUE.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s December issue.

Find it on newsstands or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.

Comments

comments