800 West Wells Street
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53233-1478
Telephone: (414) 278-2702
Toll Free: (888) 700-9069
Fax: (414) 278-6100
Web site: http://www.mpm.edu
Sales: $14.2 million (2017)
NAICS: 712110 Museums
Milwaukee Public Museum, Inc., is a Wisconsin-based nonprofit corporation that operates the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM), which receives about 500,000 visitors each year. The human and natural history museum offers 17 permanent exhibits, including the popular Streets of Old Milwaukee, a three-quarter-scale depiction of the city during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the European Village from the same period. Other permanent exhibits feature dioramas of Africa, the Artic, Native Americans, South and Middle America, and ocean life. Additional exhibits feature live specimens of insects and butterflies and a model rainforest through which visitors can stroll. The MPM also offers special and traveling exhibitions and is home to the Daniel M. Soref Dome Theater & Planetarium that presents standard and three-dimensional astronomy shows. In keeping with its human and natural history mission, the MPM maintains a collection of more than 4 million objects and specimens, divided among the departments of anthropology, botany, geology, history, invertebrate zoology, photography, and vertebrate zoology. The MPM offers group tours, a lecture series, overnight and summer camp programs, and the SPARK! program for people in the early to mid-stages of memory loss and their caregivers and family. Furthermore, the MPM operates the MPM on the Move Outreach Program that brings museum programs to local schools, libraries, and other community groups.
The MPM traces its lineage to 1851, when the German educator Peter Engelmann arrived in Milwaukee and opened the German-English Academy, a private school, with the financial backing of the city's wealthy German immigrants. A student of natural history, Engelmann began collecting specimens and artifacts with his students. In 1857 their activities led to the establishment of the Naturhistorischen Vereins von Wisconsin (Wisconsin Natural History Society).
The board of trustees for the new Milwaukee Public Museum held its organizational meeting in February 1883 and elected the first officers. Initially, the museum was housed in a hall of the German-English Academy that only provided 6,000 square feet of exhibition space. One of the board's first tasks was to find a larger location for the museum. The members settled on the ground floor of Milwaukee's Exposition Building, which became the MPM's new home.
Thereafter, the new museum began looking to expand its holdings. A large collection of natural history objects exhibited by Ward's Natural Science Establishment of Rochester in late 1883 caught the attention of MPM officials. A public subscription was organized and raised the necessary $12,000 to acquire the collection. It went on display in the Exposition Building in May 1884.
Other additions to the museum soon followed. It purchased the Haskell collection of Wisconsin archeological specimens in 1883. Three years later, in 1886, a public subscription raised $1,855 toward the $2,500 purchase of the H. H. Hayssen collection of archeological and ethnological specimens. That same year the 3,000-piece F. S. Perkins collection of archaeological copper and other Wisconsin specimens was donated to the museum. In 1897 several friends of the museum contributed $800 to purchase mineralogical specimens that had been collected by P. P. Peck. The museum also found novel ways to display items. In 1890 a diorama that depicted a muskrat colony was created, becoming the world's first museum habitat diorama.
In the meantime, steps were taken to fund and build a larger permanent home for the museum as well as a municipal library. In 1890 the city spent $150,000 to purchase a property on Grand Avenue between Eighth and Ninth Streets. Construction on a Renaissance revival–style library-museum building finally commenced in 1896. It was completed two years later at a total cost of more than $600,000. The museum's collections were transferred to the new site, which offered 38,000 square feet of exhibition space, and in January 1899 a public dedication ceremony was held.
It was believed that the new building provided enough space to accommodate future growth, but it quickly became apparent that there was barely enough space to house the current collections. Soon, there were calls for an addition to the building. A 1906 amendment to an 1897 state law that allowed cities to establish historical museums and bestowed certain powers to trustees extended those powers to public museum trustees. As a result, MPM trustees were able to secure adjoining property to the museum and construct an addition for a historical museum, which at a cost of $400,000 was completed in 1912. Besides doubling the amount of exhibition space, the museum added studios and workshops, as well as office space for the expanding staff. The addition also included a large lecture hall, allowing for the expansion of the museum's lecture activities, especially to public school children. By 1920 about 90,000 people attended MPM lectures every year. The MPM's commitment to the education of young people was further demonstrated in 1921, with the opening of a Children's Room, which offered exhibits that were tailored to the museum's youngest visitors.
Moreover, the new wing of the museum allowed for the expansion of its collections. The first 20 years of the 1900s saw the arrival of several major additions. Gifts included the Geo A. West collection of Native American pipes, primarily found in Wisconsin and regarded as the country's finest pipe collection; the B. F. Goss collection of birds' nests and eggs; the Ernst von Baumbach collection of minerals; and the Mayer collection of boots and shoes from around the world. The museum's most valuable collection added during this period was the 1,815-piece Rudolph J. Nunnemacher collection of arms, armor, carvings, ceramics, textiles, and other objects, with an estimated total value of more than $70,000. Supplementing this gift was a $10,000 bequest to further expand the collection.
After the war ended, it became apparent that the time had come for the MPM to have its own home, separate from the library. Discussions began as early as 1947, but another decade would pass before a bond issue could be approved to provide the necessary funding. The museum's plans were ambitious: to build the fourth-largest natural history museum in the United States, only trailing in scale the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Chicago's Field Museum. Also groundbreaking was the proposed space in which visitors could stroll through an integrated history of the earth and humans. One example of the concept of particular local interest was the proposed “Gay 90s” exhibit that would recreate a late 19th-century downtown Milwaukee street. It was ultimately realized as the popular Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit.
Construction on the new museum, which was located one block from the old library-museum building, began in 1960. The project was completed in 1962. Although the new building was dedicated that same year, both old and new museums remained open for two years as the exhibits and collections were transferred. In the end, 88 dioramas had to be left behind because of the difficulty in moving what were essentially complex works of art. The museum estimated that it would take a single artist working 40 hours a week for 15 years to reproduce them. It was not until 1967 that the library closed the last of the museum's exhibits. Original display cases and tile mosaics remained, reminding library visitors of the building's heritage. Transferring the museum's collections was another massive undertaking. As a result, the move to the new building was not completed until the early 1970s.
In 1992 responsibility of the museum was transferred to a separate nonprofit corporation: Milwaukee Public Museum, Inc. The new management team oversaw the next major addition to the MPM: the 1996 opening of the Humphrey IMAX Dome Theater, which featured a six-story projector screen and wraparound digital surround sound. Although housed within the museum, the theater was a 50-50 joint venture with the privately owned Discovery World.
During the final years of the century the MPM attempted to stimulate sagging attendance and create new revenue streams, all the while borrowing heavily. The museum hosted major exhibits and created a live butterfly exhibit. It bought acreage in a Costa Rican rainforest and opened eight retail stores across Wisconsin, which among other merchandise sold chocolate made from Costa Rican cocoa. The new ventures brought higher revenues, but they did not keep pace with the higher costs involved. At the time of the city spinoff in 1992, the museum carried debt of $900,000. By August 2005 that amount increased to $28.8 million.
As the museum's finances deteriorated, the MPM's CFO, Terry A. Gaouette, began dipping into the museum's $8.5 million endowment in 2004 to cover normal operating expenses. The endowment was reduced to $387,000 by August 2005, when the museum finally revealed to the city its dire financial position. For making illegal fund transfers Gaouette faced criminal charges and eventually plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of falsifying a financial report.
A new museum president, Dan Finley, was chosen and Milwaukee County guaranteed $6 million in loans to support a recovery plan. Even as the museum was edging toward insolvency in 2005, it was upgrading the dome theater to include a planetarium, which was part of a gift that had been provided by the Daniel M. Soref Charitable Trust. The planetarium opened in 2006 and helped Finley in his attempts to turn the MPM around. In March 2008 the museum made the final payment on the county-guaranteed loans and returned to profitability.
Daniel M. Soref Dome Theater & Planetarium.
Field Museum of Natural History; Museum of Science and Industry; St. Louis Science Center Foundation.
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Prigge, Matthew J. “MPM Wants a New, Cutting-Edge Home—Just as They Had 50 Years Ago.” Shepherd Express (Milwaukee, WI), May 8, 2017.
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