Is the Milwaukee Public Museum in Danger?

The MPM’s weepy old basement threatens to destroy some of the city’s most valuable treasures.

There are several large storage rooms inside the Milwaukee Public Museum’s notoriously leaky basement, which is jammed with shelves and cabinets built to house priceless relics, including the fossilized skeleton of a mastodon and a stunning Central American dress decorated with jade beetle shells. But the History Department, where aging clothes and fabrics from MPM’s extensive textiles collection are stored, is the worst off. Elaborate gutters run from leaky spots in the room’s ceiling to buckets on the floor, including one that catches a syrupy substance, apparently dribbled from the cafeteria upstairs. The employees here and all over the basement are fighting a war against moisture from HVAC ductwork, water pipes, rainstorms and other, unidentified sources.

A Greek hydra ceramic water jug from part of the Crossroads of Civilization exhibit. Photo by The Refinery Studio

A couple years ago, one of the rust-colored water pipes that cross the History Department’s ceiling burst and trickled down onto a cabinet containing Depression-era Works Progress Administration quilts, marring several before an employee noticed. A wise staffer stowed them in a freezer, knowing the stains wouldn’t fully set until the water dried, buying time to restore the quilts properly. MPM then set about wrapping more artifacts in plastic. So far, nothing has been lost.

“We seem to always be fighting an issue with the building,” says Ellen Censky, the museum’s senior vice president and academic dean. Much of the institution’s archives, including its insect collection, are stored above ground, where the rooms are drier, and the museum’s president and CEO for about three years now, Dennis Kois, is pushing for a new building where strict climate control is the norm. A Whitefish Bay native and former designer of exhibits, including at the Smithsonian, Kois argues that MPM’s aging process has gotten out of control. “We’ve had insurance claims well into six figures just since I arrived here,” he says. “That’s not normal. You might see that over a 50-year span [at a comparable museum].”

Chartered in 1882, MPM is older than the National Park Service, and the current museum building, opened in 1963, “was built about the same year as the Domes,” Kois says, “and has been cared for just as well. The county does what it can, but they’ve got limited resources.” His grand vision calls for breaking new ground Downtown, and while the museum’s board hasn’t backed a specific plan, it’s lean in Kois’ direction after a two-year study found that either renovation or a new building would cost some $100 million. In private meetings, Kois has cited an overall fundraising target of $150 million.

In the meantime, at least half of the objects in MPM’s collections will go into offsite storage in anticipation of the museum renewing its accreditation in 2020. The lease on the present-day building, owned by Milwaukee County, runs out in 2022, and no one yet knows how to pay for a replacement for the mammoth old structure, which Kois argues is too big for a city this size. He says a smaller shape might be “the right museum for Milwaukee.” ◆

‘Waterlogged’ appears in the June 2017 (City Guide) issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.