Q&A: Dennis Kois

Milwaukee native Dennis Kois, the Public Museum’s new president, has grand plans for the newly debt-free institution.

Milwaukee native Dennis Kois, the Public Museum’s new president, has grand plans for the newly debt-free institution.

Milwaukee native and new president of the Public Museum, Dennis Kois. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Milwaukee native and new president of the Public Museum, Dennis Kois. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris. Click image to enlarge.

What’s in store for the new Streets of Old Milwaukee?
We are renovating for their 50th anniversary this year. We will bring them up to date to the level of experience that contemporary people really expect of museums. All without ruining what is a beloved icon. I think if we wreck the Streets of Old Milwaukee, we will be run out of town.

Any specifics?
There’s going to be a new entrance, a kind of magical experience. Think of magical portals from the books you read in your youth. There will be some new technology that will let you follow the stories of specific Milwaukeeans through the streets. And the audio and the content you get as you travel the streets will be different depending on whom you follow.

Technology seems to be a snazzy part of newer exhibits. But how can a natural history museum keep up with the rapid pace of technology?
It can’t. Here, technology is a tool for museums to provide a way for people to engage, and there are museums that will tell you that there should be no technology ever, and there are visitors who want technology to be the leading part of their experience. All museums have to work for both of those kinds of visitors and everybody in between. You’ll see us integrate technology into what we do in really subtle, thoughtful ways. But, they’re not going to supplant the core experience of this museum.

Plenty of historical information can be had with the swipe of a finger. So why go to a museum?
Probably now more than ever, museums are to some degree an antidote to the kinds of facsimile and technology that most people experience daily. We can get an image of the Mona Lisa online, but there are still people 10-deep in front of the Mona Lisa, snapping their own picture. Why is that? Because there’s power in real objects, and whether that’s a 700-million-year-old fossil or a piece of Milwaukee history, that’s a powerful tool this museum has.

You’ve mentioned your intention to localize parts of the museum.
We are working on a project for 2016 – it doesn’t have a name yet – but we are working on a project that is a version of “100 Things That Make You a Real Wisconsinite” or a “Real Milwaukeean.”

You’ve also mentioned your goal to hire a contemporary curator. 

Milwaukee is a very vibrant city right now, and we should be collecting the here and the now of our culture and of our natural history. Museums aren’t intended to be depositories for only the past and dead objects.

What have you championed since arriving here last May?
An exhibit coming here in [spring] 2017 called “Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature and Culture.” It’s a traveling exhibit coming from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. What I’m excited about is that we have already brought in a community curator. She is going to be our liaison out into the world. This museum is going to be creating a host of programs and connections in the community around that exhibit.

Do you think the museum will ever outgrow this building?
There’s two answers to that question. One is that I think the museum needs to go outside of the walls of the structure. The museum needs to be an institution that is about more than objects in the building. It’s about relationships; it’s about culture and where Milwaukee’s past connects with its future. This museum over the next year is going to posit a future for itself that may involve staying in this building and renovating it, it may involve coming up with a plan to find a new home for the museum. We have to look at both of those alternatives.

Where does the museum fit within the city’s mix of cultural institutions?
There are very few places left in the city where the entire city can come together in one place and have a dialogue about who we want to be. The public museum is one of those few places because it is not political; it’s based on fact and science, and it welcomes everyone. You’re not going to have that dialogue at a Brewers game, at Summerfest – as great as those institutions are. This is one of the few places where you can have a Mequon mom in a Range Rover, a near-South Side family that took a bus in, a West Side family that walked over, all come together and be in the same place at the same time, talking about the same issues.

Be honest. Has the butterfly exhibit run its course?
Not if you ask the 6-year-olds that come in here.

Condensed and edited from a longer interview.

This article appears in the June 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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Claire Hanan worked at the magazine as an editor from 2012-2017. She edited the Culture section and wrote stories about all sorts of topics, including the arts, fashion, politics and more. In 2016, she was a finalist for best profile writing at the City and Regional Magazine Awards for her story "In A Flash." In 2014, she won the the Milwaukee Press gold award for best public service story for editing "Handle With Care," a service package about aging in Milwaukee. Before all this, she attended the University of Missouri's School of Journalism and New York University's Summer Publishing Institute.