Will There Be Butterflies? Milwaukee Public Museum Execs Answer Our Questions About the Big Move

Here’s how the Milwaukee Public Museum is thinking about what will be in its new building, opening in 2026. Yes, there will be butterflies!

Ellen Censky
President, Milwaukee Public Museum

Katie Sanders
Chief Planning Officer, Milwaukee Public Museum

Moving to a new home would be a big deal for anybody. But it’s a really big deal when you have  about 4 million things to move and you entertain more than 550,000 guests each year.

That’s the challenge that Ellen Censky and Katie Sanders face. Censky is the president and Sanders is the chief planning officer of the Milwaukee Public Museum. They’re in charge of the $240 million effort to transition one of the region’s biggest tourist attractions out of its deteriorating building on MacArthur Square and into an architecturally unique new structure in the Haymarket neighborhood north of Fiserv Forum.



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It would be a huge task just to raise the money, design and construct the new building, and pack, move and unpack the vast county-owned collection, most of which isn’t on public display. But it’s even more complicated to reinvent a 138-year-old natural history museum as an institution of the future that still honors the past.

Censky and Sanders talked with Milwaukee Magazine about that process and about what visitors can expect in the new building.

Rendering courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum

Will all of our old favorite exhibits still be on display in the new museum?

Censky: Our goal is that when you walk into that new museum, you will feel that you’re in a familiar space, but that you’re also in a very refreshed space. So entire exhibits will not move over, but elements will.

Sanders: It’s important to balance the familiar aspects of this current museum with innovating –which is really fundamental to the museum’s history — and ensuring that we create exhibits that are going to reach generations to come. We have a lot of options related to educational and immersive learning experiences. This presents the museum and this community with an incredible opportunity to re-envision the museum experience in the future. That said, one of the things we’ve heard loud and clear from this community is that there are a lot of aspects of the current museum that people value, and so we need to appropriately balance that new experience with some things that are familiar.

What about the butterfly wing?

Censky: The two things that we know will be going over, but will be reimagined — they will not look the same in any way — are the butterfly vivarium, because that is one of if not the most popular exhibit, and then the planetarium. (We still will have) the ability to show giant films in the new (facility), but it first and foremost is a planetarium.

Sanders: This (location) has really great southern-facing light, so it’s an ideal condition for the vivarium to be up on the roof and getting the most sunlight.

How are you designing the new exhibits?

Sanders: The future museum exhibits are going to (reflect) the museum’s goals. Some of them include: Feeling generally welcome; giving the visitors agency or choice; navigating with ease and comfort; planning for flexibility and change; (balancing) immersive and interactive environments with spaces for observation and contemplation; and (sparking) curiosity and engagement in people of all ages and abilities through multi-sensory experiences and inclusive design. When we unveil the design of the future museum’s exhibits, I think you’ll see how those goals are incorporated.

We’ve spent the last 2-1/2 years working on exhibit content. We spent all of 2020 just deciding the general storylines that come out of the collections. It’s really important to us that the museum have a cohesive story throughout. The intersection of nature and culture is really what unifies the collections. That is grounded in the museum’s mission of inspiring people to be curious about and preserve and protect the world’s natural and cultural resources.

From that overarching vision, we began to narrow it down to specific storylines: Sustaining life, migration and habitation, forces and relations, change and evolution, and ways of knowing. They’re not meant to be exhibits in themselves, but they’re meant to be consistent stories that exhibits and galleries will explore. We have an opportunity to design all of the exhibits at the same time and have that consistency throughout the museum. We’ll have a better sense of the galleries and exhibits as we move into early 2023.

Rendering courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum

How are you involving the public in planning the new museum?

Sanders: Community engagement has been a fundamental aspect of the project for several years, even before the museum decided to pursue a new facility. We’ve engaged thousands upon thousands of community members in focus groups, workshops, surveys, individual interviews (and) classroom projects. The entire process has been this back-and-forth, testing different ideas and concepts: how people feel about the current museum, how they feel about the current exhibits.

We put out a survey in September. It ran for about a month. We were hoping for 1,000 survey responses. And within a few hours of opening the survey, we had to upgrade our subscription for the survey software we were using. Ultimately we received nearly 5,000 responses. The questions we asked were about different concepts for exhibits or galleries in the future museum. We were asking questions to really understand what people feel about Wisconsin, what people feel about Milwaukee, places that they enjoy visiting and taking visitors to. A few questions were open-ended, and (we) learned very quickly that was an invitation for a lot of people. From that 5,000 people who responded, we had to parse through more than 50,000 individual responses. It was wonderful to see so many people provide really comprehensive thoughts.

At (a) town hall meeting, (we asked) a few follow-up questions. For instance, one of the questions in the survey was what about places you would like to explore, and one of the answers we received was “ancient civilizations.” So we asked people specifically which ancient civilizations they would want us to visit. We’ve used the survey to make decisions about aspects of exhibits that will or will not be included.

How will the new museum reflect the lived experiences of local ethnic groups?

Censky: We have been reaching out to all of the (Wisconsin Indian) tribes and have been meeting with as many as we can, and really getting a sense of what are the important stories that they want to share, and what are the stories also that they don’t want us to share, either that they are not stories that they think should be told or that they should tell them themselves. We have lists of what we have from the different tribes, and we are specifically saying, “What things do you want us to share, and what do you not want us to share?” It’s not going to be that we decide what is on display. It will come from the tribes as to what they want on display, and how they want it displayed.

Sanders: We’ve been intentional about having inclusive (focus) groups throughout the past several years. As we move into this next year, we’ll be engaging with specific ethnic groups around the collections to articulate the stories they want told.

What about other visitor amenities?

Censky: Similar to what we have now, the restaurant, the gift shop (and) our educational classrooms will be on (the) ground floor, as well as ticketing and the planetarium. That space will be non-ticketed, so just like in the current museum, you go up to the next level and that is the ticketed level.

Sanders: (The building will have) an outdoor plaza, which is meant to be a community space and an outdoor classroom, and it’s adjacent to a cafe. So you could imagine, on a nice day, eating your lunch on the plaza.

How long will it take to move everything?

Censky: We have 4 million objects in our collection. Probably only about 6 to 8 percent of those are on display in exhibits. The move of those collections is a time-intensive, people-intensive project. From start to finish, it includes digitizing and bar-coding every single item in those collections so we can track the move. Then it requires the packing and the final transport and then the unpacking and placement into the storage units. That, for some of the collections, is an eight-year process, which has already started. It’s possible that some of those collections will trail us a little bit (into the new facilities).

Sanders: One of the questions we get is how long this (current) building will be open. We will keep this building open as long as we can before the grand opening of the future building. There will of course be some transition time in 2026, when we have to move the staff and final things over, but this current museum will be open for the next several years.

Censky: We will do everything we can to make sure we keep a nice exhibit experience in this museum as long as possible.

Milwaukee Public Museum; Photo by Visit Milwaukee

How We Got Here

A journey that started in a leaky basement will end in a new building.

FOR YEARS, the Milwaukee Public Museum’s leaders have been concerned that its current home’s deficiencies posed a threat to its massive collection. And if they couldn’t guarantee the safety of that collection, they risked losing accreditation from the American Association of Museums – and with it the ability to host lucrative traveling exhibits.

In 2015, the museum commissioned a study of its future. Two years later, MPM announced that it would move to a new home instead of renovating its county-owned building, opened in 1962. That triggered a search that culminated in the 2020 selection of a 2.4-acre site at the northeast corner of North Sixth Street and West McKinley Avenue.

Funding for the $240 million project took a major step forward in 2021, when the state agreed to kick in $40 million, its largest capital grant to a local cultural institution in at least 25 years. (Part of that deal could be changing the museum’s name to the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture, although MPM President Ellen Censky says a new name isn’t final.) The county followed with a $45 million contribution in March 2022.

Those commitments convinced the museum association to reaccredit MPM last August, giving the institution’s leaders breathing room to transition to the planned five-story, 200,000-square-foot building, with a design inspired by western Wisconsin’s Mill Bluffs. As of late November, the museum was still looking for a separate 50,000-square-foot storage facility, probably rented, that would house roughly half its collection.  

If fundraising from donors remains on track, the museum would break ground on the main building late this year, with plans to open in 2026.

Photo by Everett Eaton


Dollars for Dinosaurs

Here’s how the estimated $240 million budget for the new Milwaukee Public Museum breaks down:


Private donations: $150 million

Milwaukee County: $45 million

State of Wisconsin: $40 million

Federal government: $5 million


Design and construction: $182 million

Endowment: $25 million

Moving expenses: $20 million

Land: $8 million 

Fundraising and project management: $5 million


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

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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.