The Milwaukee Public Museum and Mitchell Park Domes Face a Crisis: Preserving Themselves

After decades of preserving our natural heritage, the Milwaukee Public Museum and the Mitchell Park Domes could soon be considered endangered species.

They are a part of nearly every Milwaukee childhood. If you grew up or raised a child here, you’ve probably visited the Milwaukee Public Museum and the Mitchell Park Domes.

Wandering through the Streets of Old Milwaukee to catch a glimpse of a silent film or sample a piece of old-fashioned candy. Holding still in wonder as a butterfly lands on your arm. Finding the “secret” diorama buttons that make rattlesnakes rattle and howler monkeys howl. All are treasured museum memories.

So it is too at the Domes: Watching model trains chug through a fanciful display at the Show Dome. Imagining you’re exploring a jungle or desert in the Tropical or Desert domes.

And the moments these places make aren’t only for kids. Many a couple have been married in the Domes’ scenic beauty.

It seems as if the Public Museum and the Domes have been here forever. But they aren’t guaranteed to stay here forever. Both are housed in aging structures owned by Milwaukee County that must be replaced or renovated if they are to survive.

Like their eye-catching conoidal construction, the Domes’ problems were dramatically visible. Cracks were appearing in the glass for several years before a chunk of concrete fell in the Desert Dome, prompting the closure of first that dome and then all three for much of 2016. That triggered a study of the Domes’ future, leading to a task force recommendation to not only renovate the structures but to reimagine their relationship to their host park and the community.

The Public Museum’s struggle is largely behind the scenes, where the staff battles to protect the vast county-owned collection of artifacts against leaky pipes, poor insulation and inadequate climate control. In the public areas, outdated exhibits sprawl across a space far larger than most of the museum’s counterparts. Now the museum has launched a search for a new home – and if it fails, it could lose the accreditation needed to host the traveling exhibits that bring in crucial revenue.

In both cases, taxpayers and donors will be asked to put up tens of millions of dollars – or face a future without these beloved local icons. Some say the price of losing such assets couldn’t be measured in money. They’re part of Milwaukee’s cultural fabric, more than just buildings holding plants or dinosaur bones, says Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. “Great societies have always had great cultural institutions – institutions that celebrate not only the past but ground their citizens in what makes up their future,” he says.

Their plight is a present-day crisis. Yet like so many current crises, it reflects larger trends that developed over many years, accompanied by warnings to change course before it was too late.

Local historian John Gurda sees “a conscious disinvestment” in services that contribute to the quality of life for residents. “That’s a clear trend,” Gurda says, “The inadequacy of the county to support these legacy institutions.”

In a larger sense, the story of what happened to the Public Museum, the Domes and their sister Milwaukee County cultural institutions is the story of what happened to a county that once seemed destined to become a de facto metropolitan government, with aspirations that stretched far beyond its official state-assigned responsibilities. The Domes and the museum are the legacy of mid-20th-century civic hubris, humbled by the harsh fiscal realities of early 21st-century politics.


The Mitchell Park Domes opened over a three-year span in the ’60s; a gala welcomed Milwaukee Public Museum’s Rainforest exhibit in 1988. Illustration by Linden Eller.

IT COULD HAVE BEEN THE CITY. The Public Museum was founded as a city institution, opening in 1884. Similarly, the Milwaukee County Zoo began as an animal exhibit in Washington Park – part of a system of city-owned parks – in 1892.

In a 1934 advisory referendum, Mayor Daniel Hoan won nearly 3-1 support for consolidating the city, county and suburban governments, mainly on the strength of city votes. However, the state Legislature sided with suburban opponents and quashed the idea, according to Gurda.

That led to a second referendum, in 1936, to merge the city parks into the county parks system, a move Gurda says was intended to provide a broader base of tax support. The city’s Washington Park Zoo was included in the deal, while Boerner Botanical Gardens in Hales Corners were already part of the county parks.

From then on, the momentum for regional quality-of-life services was on the county’s side. “A burst of civic energy and confidence in the two decades after World War II” fueled the county’s recreational and cultural expansion, Gurda says.

Gurda points to the opening of County Stadium in 1953, the War Memorial Center (which promptly became the Milwaukee Art Museum’s home) in 1957, the zoo’s new West Side grounds in 1958, the Public Museum’s new building on Downtown’s MacArthur Square in 1962 and the Domes (officially the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory) in phases from 1964 to 1967. The Performing Arts Center (now the Marcus Center) followed in 1969.

With the exception of the Public Museum, then still a city operation, all were county buildings, mostly built with tax dollars. Private donors put up the money for building the War Memorial Center and the PAC, both of which were then donated to the county. Donors also contributed the Milwaukee County Historical Center in 1965 and the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum in 1966.

By 1980, the county’s cultural dominance was complete. Backlash against the Public Museum’s first-ever admission fee, in 1972, led the city to transfer it to the county in 1976. Separately, the city transferred the Charles Allis Art Museum to the county in 1979, and the historic Trimborn Farm in Greendale joined the parks system in 1980.

All told, the county government owned and operated a zoo, a natural history museum, a horticultural conservatory, a botanical garden and a far-flung parks system, while serving as landlord to a major league baseball team, three visual art museums, a local history museum, a historic farm and the region’s top performing arts groups.


FROM BEACHES TO BABOONS, fossils to fastballs, paintings to plantings to pirouettes, the county was doing it all. But none of that was what the county was designed to do.

The state established counties to operate the justice system, care for the needy, build and maintain roads, run elections and collect property taxes. All those cultural and recreational facilities are considered “discretionary” services – as is the Milwaukee County Transit System, which the county took over in 1975.

Paying for everything soon became a major challenge. County officials struggled to hold down property tax increases while keeping admission fees and bus fares affordable. They lashed out at the state for not giving counties enough money to pay for required courts and social services, and for cutting shared revenue, the unrestricted aid that gives local governments a share of state income and sales taxes.

But with insufficient help coming from Madison – compounded by the impact of a controversial 2001 pension deal – the county started to cut back wherever it legally could. County officials sold Doyne Hospital to Froedtert Hospital in 1995, and plan to phase out the Mental Health Complex by 2021. Separately, Miller Park – not a ward of Milwaukee County – replaced County Stadium in a 2001 move that was less about county finances than baseball economics.

Less visibly – but no less consequentially – elected officials delayed major capital projects, opting for cheaper short-term fixes. And if the needs weren’t critical yet, they also put off the short-term fixes and even routine repairs. As delays continued year after year, the backlog of needed work grew.

By 2009, county auditors calculated the parks system’s deferred maintenance – delayed short-term repairs – had reached $200 million, a figure estimated to have risen to $246 million by 2017. In 2018, the Domes alone accounted for $30 million of that total, consultants told the task force studying the conservatory’s future.

Supervisor Jason Haas, chairman of the County Board’s parks committee, says the Domes fell victim to “years of willful neglect,” but adds, “Virtually every building in all the county’s holdings suffers from deferred maintenance.”

That includes the Public Museum, where consultants estimate deferred maintenance totals $87 million, Museum President Ellen Censky says. “We do not fault the county in any way,” she diplomatically adds. “They’ve got a lot of buildings.”

By contrast, the Marcus Center has no deferred maintenance, according to recently retired President Paul Mathews. He credits “sound planning and forward thinking,” as well as “great collaboration” between center and county staff since a major renovation in the mid-1990s.

In addition to the short-term maintenance backlog, a 2018 report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum says, fulfilling all spending requests for long-term improvements in parks, recreational and cultural facilities from 2019 through 2022 would require $194.1 million, a 135% increase over budgeted spending of the past four years. Even if the county wanted to do that, a spending boost that large would eat up nearly all the borrowing capacity it needs for other projects, such as buying new buses and replacing the aging Safety Building, the nonpartisan local think tank’s report notes.

An architectural rendering of a plan for the revamped Marcus Center. Photo courtesy of HGA


IN SHOW BUSINESS, you always need new acts. Audiences won’t keep coming for the same old song and dance.

That’s why the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, one of Milwaukee’s top spots for singing and dancing, is mounting a new production of itself at the same time it’s bringing in a new director and bringing down the curtain on one of its longest-running shows.

A major renovation of the 50-year-old arts venue will add an atrium and terrace, facing the Milwaukee River; a five-story video projection wall, facing East Kilbourn Avenue; a donor lounge; and new seating, with aisles to break up the long rows in Uihlein Hall, the center’s biggest performance space. The plan also will expand use of technology, including digital signs, says recently retired Marcus Center President Paul Mathews. 

However, the outdoors part of the plan drew controversy, because it will remove a grove of chestnut trees and replace it with a “great lawn.” Preservationists fought a losing battle to save the trees.

The renovation is estimated to cost $65 million, Mathews says. Milwaukee County, which owns the building, has agreed to put up $10 million. Although fundraising has started, the project was temporarily put on hold pending a review of the details and budget by Mathews’ successor, Kendra Whitlock Ingram, who began in that role on March 9. That review is still underway as staff have been busy dealing with impacts of the COVID-19 situation, Ingram says.

This will be the center’s biggest overhaul since a $26.5 million renovation in the 1990s. During the fundraising campaign for that redo, the Marcus Corp. Foundation donated an undisclosed sum to name the complex after company founder Ben Marcus and his wife, Ceil. It had been known simply as the Performing Arts Center since it opened in 1969.

Another major change is coming this year, as the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra wraps up its last season at the Marcus Center before moving to its new home in the restored Warner Grand Theater in the fall. That will leave the Milwaukee Ballet, Florentine Opera Company, First Stage and Black Arts MKE as major tenants, supplemented by touring Broadway shows and others.

Mathews says he’s confident the Marcus Center will be able to bring in other revenue to replace the MSO’s $400,000 in rent, likely by offering more diverse programming. The symphony’s departure will open not only prime weekend dates when the orchestra would have performed, but also midweek dates that would have been used for MSO rehearsals, he noted.

Separately, the center is pursuing plans to develop a mixed-use building on the site of its parking garage. Unlike the rest of the county-owned complex, the garage is owned by the nonprofit Marcus Center, which could use revenue from the development to wean itself off county operating subsidies.

That subsidy was one reason that County Executive Chris Abele failed in a bid to hand off the Marcus Center to the Wisconsin Center District. Abele had insisted on including the transfer in the 2015 funding deal for Fiserv Forum, bypassing supervisors and voters without any local fiscal analysis. After the County Board vowed to cut off the subsidy if the transfer went through, the district board and Marcus Center officials protested the shift wasn’t financially workable, Abele relented and the Legislature repealed the transfer mandate in 2018.

As of February, the planned mixed-use building was one of two sites still in the running as a possible new home for the Milwaukee Public Museum, according to Museum President Ellen Censky.

“Milwaukee County leaders must recognize that they cannot afford all of their necessary projects.”

– 2019 Policy Forum Report

Local officials – backed in recent years by business leaders – have lobbied for state authority to raise the county sales tax from 0.5%, including some proposals that would have earmarked all or part of that additional revenue for parks and cultural facilities. Those efforts have failed so far but were continuing at press time.

Without the sales tax increase or other new revenue – and maybe even with it – “Milwaukee County leaders must recognize that they cannot afford all of their necessary projects,” the Policy Forum says in a 2019 follow-up report.

And if something’s got to go, the report adds, parks and cultural assets would be the most logical targets, not only because they’re discretionary but also because they’re the biggest chunk of the county’s infrastructure needs. That’s likely to be a tough debate, because “no supervisor wishes to see a pool or ballfield eliminated from a park in his or her district,” the report says.


The first (elephant) phase of the Milwaukee County Zoo’s Adventure Africa project opened last spring. Illustration by Linden Eller.

AS THE COUNTY BECAME a less reliable landlord, some cultural institutions edged toward greater independence. Nonprofit organizations already operated most of them, while county employees were in charge at the Public Museum, the zoo (which became a separate county department in 1980) and – through the parks system – the stadium, Boerner and the Domes.

In 1992, the Public Museum became the first cultural institution to switch from county to nonprofit control. Advocates for the change argued the new organization could attract more contributions, because donors would trust the nonprofit to spend their money as they intended, instead of fearing a government agency might use their cash to pay for other needs.

That was the theory. A 2005 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation and a county audit exposed how top museum officials betrayed donors’ trust. Two major projects – an IMAX theater in 1996 and a live butterfly exhibit in 2000 – had saddled the museum with unsustainable debt at the same time personnel and utility costs were rising and contributions from donors and the county were falling. Auditors found CFO Terry Gaouette drained the museum’s endowment to pay day-to-day expenses, while President Michael Stafford ignored Gaouette’s warnings about the museum’s deteriorating finances. Both executives resigned under pressure.

To recover from the scandal and straighten out its finances, the museum took out a $6 million bank loan (later forgiven), chopped staff 45% and sold its rainforest research property in Costa Rica.

While the Public Museum has faced struggles as a nonprofit, the zoo has thrived as a county department, repeatedly expanding with major investments from donors and taxpayers. The key to its success has been its unique relationship with the nonprofit Zoological Society of Milwaukee, say Zoo Director Chuck Wikenhauser and Society President Jodi Gibson.

Since 1910, the society has supported the zoo, notably by raising half the money needed for big capital projects. County appropriations matched fundraising campaigns launched in 1985 and 1999, for a total of $56.5 million in upgrades. Another campaign, started in 2014, features a similar 50-50 split for a projected $86 million in improvements, starting with the $40 million Adventure Africa project that began opening in phases last year.

A formal agreement spells out how the organizations work together, including provisions for the society to run the Zoo’s educational operations and to design Zoo signs and brochures, Wikenhauser and Gibson say. After county officials noticed Zoo revenue dropping as more visitors joined the society for free admission, the deal was revised in 2014 to give the Zoo a 50% cut of society dues, a projected $3.4 million this year, Wikenhauser adds.

Wikenhauser and Gibson say the transparency of the arrangement helps build donor confidence. They don’t see a need for the society to take over all Zoo operations. “It’s working,” Wikenhauser says of the current setup. “There’s no reason to mess it up.”

The Domes don’t have that history of attracting major private donations. With the exception of $500,000 in contributions for LED lighting in 2008-09, the county has paid for most improvements.

That’s why the Domes task force considers nonprofit operation essential to raising the money for the recommended overhaul, say task force chairman Bill Lynch and Sally Sullivan, executive director of the Friends of the Domes. Consultants believe a new conservancy should be formed to take over, while Sullivan argues her group could handle the role.

Under its latest agreement with the county, the Friends of the Domes will expand from providing adult education to operating all the conservatory’s educational programs, in addition to running the gift shop, Sullivan says. That’s similar to the deal the Friends of Boerner Botanical Gardens have at the county’s other major horticultural institution, says Ellen Hayward, president of the Boerner group.

But Boerner’s Friends have taken on a larger fundraising role than their Domes counterpart. The Boerner Friends raised $8 million of the $11 million cost of a visitor center that has helped the outdoor gardens attract guests and host events year-round since its 2003 opening, as well as $124,000 in 2017-18 to light the gardens at night along with ongoing annual maintenance costs, Hayward says.

In another bid for independence, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the War Memorial Center resolved long-running maintenance concerns by taking ownership of their facilities in 2016, with the O’Donnell Park garage included in the Art Museum’s deal.

However, greater independence doesn’t mean the county is off the financial hook. All the cultural institutions housed in county buildings receive county subsidies, and payments to the Art Museum and the War Memorial Center continue even after the county no longer owns their buildings.

County Board members have mixed feelings about the trend. Supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde, a Public Museum Board member, says, “It’s really important that institutions have their own degree of independence from county fiscal constraints.” But parks committee chairman Haas, who also served on the Domes task force, wonders, “If everything is an independent nonprofit, how much accountability do they have?”


Milwaukee County owns a wide variety of cultural institutions – and supports even more, including the Milwaukee Art Museum. These are the top attractions in that portfolio.

NOTES: Projected attendance for 2020. Employee count is full-time equivalents, not including seasonal workers or interns. Boerner and Domes employee counts exclude gift shop workers. Revenue, expense and tax support figures are for fiscal years ending in 2018. Expenses exclude pensions and other employee benefits for county workers. Revenue excludes donations and fundraising.

*Direct operating aid for 2020; other county subsidies to cultural institutions include $1.29 million to the Milwaukee Art Museum, $486,000 to the War Memorial Center, $225,000 for the Charles Allis and Villa Terrace art museums and $258,000 to the Milwaukee County Historical Society.


AS WITH ANY HIGH-PRICED PRODUCT UPGRADE, the Public Museum and the Domes promote their planned building changes as both new and improved.

Deferred maintenance aside, Censky and Omokunde say the 450,000-square-foot museum is too large for its needs, leading to inefficient use of space, staff and energy. Much of that space is used for storage and research, Haas notes.

What visitors may notice more is that exhibits once considered cutting-edge haven’t kept up with technology. The world’s first animal habitat diorama debuted at the Public Museum in 1890, and that muskrat exhibit is still there, now in a place of honor on the first floor. Many other dioramas haven’t changed since the current building opened 58 years ago, Censky notes. Even some newer exhibit areas have been around a while, such as the 32-year-old Rainforest, although several others have opened since 2000 and some older areas, like the Streets of Old Milwaukee, have been updated.

The new museum would strike a balance between maintaining traditional exhibits and using technology to “reinvigorate” them and “keep us up to date and relevant,” Censky says. To save space, the museum would rent a secure storage facility for much of its collection of 4.5 million artifacts, she says.

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum


IN HER OLD JOB,  Katie Sanders helped Milwaukee neighborhoods organize around security, as executive director of Safe & Sound. Now she’s helping to safely guide the Milwaukee Public Museum to a secure future in a new building designed to be more sound than its current home.

As the museum’s new chief planning officer, Sanders is responsible for figuring out the details of the new building that will replace the current county-owned structure on Downtown’s MacArthur Square. The old building’s leaky pipes and poor climate control threaten the museum’s collection, and the space is too large for the museum’s needs.

Sanders says she took the post because “the Milwaukee Public Museum is an incredibly important institution in this community,” and she wanted to be part of its transformation.

Before joining Safe & Sound, Sanders held fundraising jobs at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Marquette University.

Staying relevant is also a priority in the Domes renovation plan. Although the Show Dome switches exhibits frequently, the basic layout of the Tropical and Desert domes hasn’t changed much in years, Lynch says.

The new plan would bring in a greater variety of new and changing exhibits for all three domes, Lynch and Sullivan say. It also would integrate the Domes with the rest of Mitchell Park, adding programs and facilities to emphasize urban agriculture, water conservation and wellness, along with more classrooms and more revenue-generating food service, retail and event space.

Supervisor Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, who represents the predominantly Hispanic South Side neighborhoods around the Domes, says the upgrade plan “embraces much more cultural diversity in programming, which is lacking.” She sees the potential for the Tropical and Desert domes to represent cultures that have historic roots in the jungles and deserts of Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

Similarly, museum officials plan to reach out to local ethnic groups to “tell their stories authentically,” says Katie Sanders, MPM’s new chief planning officer.

All that comes at a cost. The Domes renovation is estimated at $66 million, with $13.5 million each from the county and private donors, and the rest coming from various tax credits and Opportunity Zone investments. Ortiz-Velez has proposed the county generate more revenue by authorizing the park’s greenhouse to grow hemp for sale.

As of February, the Public Museum hadn’t announced a price tag or a site for its new building, although estimates have ranged from $100 million to $200 million. After rejecting a proposal to share the Domes grounds, the museum narrowed the choice to two Downtown sites but has revealed only one: the mixed-use building that the Marcus Center hopes to develop to replace its parking garage.

The Public Museum also hasn’t detailed how donors and taxpayers will share the cost, but has hinted that, as a statewide tourist destination, it should receive state dollars.

Censky points to the state’s $70 million commitment to the planned $120 million replacement of the Wisconsin History Museum in Madison. But that’s a state institution. Since 1997, the largest state capital grant to a local cultural project was $15 million for Eau Claire’s $45 million Pablo Center at the Confluence in the 2015-17 budget, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Haas sees state funding as a long shot, although he, Omokunde and the MMAC’s Sheehy agree it’s reasonable for the museum to ask. If the state refuses, however, that adds pressure on the county to chip in, despite its limited resources.

Recognizing the time it will take to fund and build a new Public Museum, the County Board appropriated $1.7 million for stopgap repairs to the current building in this year’s budget.

Ultimately, decisions on the Domes’ future, and potentially on county aid for a new Public Museum, will be up to the county executive and supervisors elected April 7.

Given the county’s fiscal limitations, Sheehy says, “The reality is that Milwaukee, like other communities, has to make choices, and not everything will survive.”

Or as Haas puts it: “Can we have nice things? Which nice things can we have, and how can we have them? That’s the conversation we should be having.”

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

Find it on newsstands or buy a copy at

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.



Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.