How Will the Milwaukee Public Museum Find Its New Home?

We asked the Public Museum’s new president for her prognosis on the institution and its future.

Dr. Ellen J. Censky’s enthusiasm is contagious. When she tells us about the time she spent tracking a group of ground lizards through a deserted island off the coast of Anguilla, sweating under the Caribbean sun and scrabbling through tropical underbrush, we wish we were experts in reptilian courtship rituals, too. And when she tells us that the Milwaukee Public Museum could soon be at the center of one of the city’s most significant construction projects in years, we can’t help but share in her sense of excitement.

Censky started working at the Public Museum in 1977, while studying zoology at UW-Milwaukee. She went on to serve as the director of the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History and the director and CEO of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History before coming back to Milwaukee, and the museum, in 2008.

Earlier this year, she became the institution’s first female president. And now she and her colleagues must figure out how to secure a new venue for the museum, and soon, or risk losing its accreditation and imperiling its massive collection.

You began working at the Public Museum when you were still in college. What were you doing there back then?

An entomologist was doing research on the evolution of carabid beetles, which are little ground beetles. He was down in South America collecting them, and my job was to pin them. They’re still here; when you open the drawers in the collections in the entomology department, you’ll see thousands of the beetles.

One of the ways that you can identify between species is by taking their genitalia out and inverting them. So part of my job was to do that. … I got the award for most beetle genitalia mounted.

The beetles that Dr. Ellen J. Censky mounted while she was completing her undergraduate degree are still in the Public Museum’s archives. Photo by Sara Stathas.

Your career eventually took you to Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Oklahoma. What brought you back to Wisconsin?

My mother decided to get old. The job opened up at just the right time because it allowed me to come back and take care of her – I got to spend two good years with her.

You know, they say you can’t go home again, but you actually can. I never thought I would eventually come back. It just happened. But it was the easiest move I ever made because I was coming back to familiar territory. My family was here.

You took over as interim president about a year ago. Did you know then that you’d be asked to stay on and assume the role for good?

The board asked me to step in, and of course I was going to do it because I love the institution, but I’m getting up there in years and had been thinking about retirement. So I said, “Sure, I can do this for the interim.” But I needed to figure out whether I wanted to do it any longer, and whether I was the right fit.

Over the course of the first couple of months, I decided that I did want the job. The museum had been through so much change already, and I represented a steady course forward. And I just felt like I had become so engaged that I couldn’t not throw my hat in the ring.

You’re the museum’s first female president. How does that feel?

It’s exciting. It’s too bad it took this long – we’re over 140 years old – for a woman to be in charge. But it’s exciting. And to be honest, I don’t think I’ll run the museum any differently than a man would have. I have the same skills. And the board chose me not because I’m a woman, but because of the skills I bring to the table.

Are women well represented in the sciences?

When I went to my first herpetology meeting – at the University of Oklahoma – about 10% of the people at the meeting were women. … Thirty years later, when I was the director of the museum there, we hosted another meeting. And I gave the welcome speech, and I remember looking across the room and saying that we’d really come a long way because at least 50% of the people in the room were women.

The building that the Public Museum has occupied since the 1960s has been deemed unsafe to house museum collections. What’s at risk?

We’re committed to taking care of these collections, not just for this generation but for future generations, too. Who knows what they’re going to be able to tell us? We haven’t even scraped the surface of what they can offer us. So we need to maintain them.

What kind of condition is the building currently in?

We don’t have a fully functioning HVAC, and if we’re not maintaining a certain temperature for the collection, then we’re not maintaining it for the public coming in, either. The public needs to be able to come into the building and enjoy what we do. As the snow started melting this spring, we had water coming into the third-floor exhibits. The roof was leaking, and we had to close down the exhibits because there were probably 15 buckets out catching water.

Why should a new museum venue be a priority for Milwaukee?

We came into being because the leaders of this community, back in the 1800s, said that we needed an institution that people can come to in order to learn about the rest of the world. That was very forward-thinking at the time. The museum became cutting edge again when Carl Akeley, who worked here, produced the first diorama [for a museum]. That was the first time anyone put a display into context. When we moved into this museum, we took that concept of a diorama and blew it up into a gigantic, immersive museum. That was cutting edge, too. And I think it’s time for us to be cutting edge again, and find a way to take the best of what we do and turn it into a 21st century museum. We want to use our past to inform our present.

“The Doctor Is In” appears in the November 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.