Milwaukee Public Museum’s Accreditation Dilema

A look at some of the hurdles MPM is facing with its plans to relocate.

The Public Museum is a beloved Milwaukee institution, but the journey to now has been anything but smooth for those in charge. Now MPM leadership has another hurdle to face on top of their already-concerning financial situation. In a letter obtained by the Journal Sentinel, the American Alliance of Museums said they are “tabling” their decision to reaccredit MPM due to concerns of  “neglect” at the county building where the museum is currently located.

Just six months ago, leaders announced that they had found a new location for the museum near Milwaukee’s Deer District. In the event of the worst-case scenario – that the museum would lose its accreditation – MPM would have trouble moving forward with this years-long plan to relocate. 

Let’s Get You Up to Speed

The Chilling Reality 

In the letter, Evans Richardson, chair of the Accreditation Commission described MPM to Dr. Ellen Censky, the CEO of MPM as, “utterly inadequate,” writing that it does not, “meet even the most minimal standards of care for the collections.”

This is not a new issue for the Museum. Even back in 2017, former CEO Dennis Kois told Milwaukee Magazine, “We’ve had insurance claims well into six figures just since I arrived here,” he said. “That’s not normal. You might see that over a 50-year span.”

As a City on Water, Milwaukee experiences a lot of precipitation. According to Censky, every time it rains there are “dozens of buckets appearing across MPM to catch leaks.” Pipes which were put on the wayside to address what was thought as more immediate maintenance issues, burst. The water leaked though the History Department’s ceiling and drained into a cabinet with Depression-era quilts resting inside. Before anyone noticed several would then bear the rust-colored folly.

According to a press release, Censky said they would become one of the largest museums to lose accreditation in AAM history, should they not receive sufficient funding. MPM reported they have over 4 million objects including Wisconsin historical items that represent each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. 

Photo by Everett Eaton


Is There Hope? 

Already, independent businesses such as Northwestern Mutual have awarded MPM with a $1 million grant for development at the new location just North of the Fiserv Forum. 

With about $30 million in maintenance costs having been postponed, they now have $100 million in renovations to catch up with those repairs and bring the Museum back up to snuff. After choosing the 2.4-acre plot for $8.1 million out of a $240 million budget to build, the renovations MPM may face fetch almost half the cost of the new location. Even if there are not setbacks or unforeseen costs in building the new location, just getting the artifacts there is a timely and costly endeavor. According to Censky, they will inspect every piece multiple times before placing it into a custom shipping container which fits the exact dimensions of the object to keep it from becoming damaged in the move. The artifacts are then unloaded and re-inspected multiple times before going into storage or a newly fabricated exhibit.

MPM is one of many who have capital requests and the legislature will have to decide what to prioritize. Including $180 million request to replace the Safety Building on State St. with a new criminal justice center. Rationing available funds becomes challenging. 

Censky said in the press release the status of the museum in the reaccreditation process might actually be a good thing. Since they must show real and tangible progress with the new location, which she has already accomplished a great deal. In other words, the new facility is saving MPM from certain doom. The issue really lies with maintaining a “sustainable” environment for the artifacts where they are not in danger of being harmed. So, yes there is hope, but it will take all us Milwaukeeans to help-out our friendly neighborhood history museum. 

If you want to support MPM, and (barring the previous year in lockdown) the 140,000 students and children who visit the museum every year, they are accepting donations. Every little bit helps. You can stop by after receiving your vaccination at the Wisconsin Center, which is just down the road. Walk the halls and expand your mind with historical wonder and the knowledge you are protected (for the most part) from COVID-19.