The Big Picture
I haven’t been to the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM) in years. Is the Museum even used that much?
MPM is by far the most-visited museum in Wisconsin, selling an average of more than 500,000 tickets a year over the past ten years. Included in that number are more than 100,000 school children on annual field trips from schools as far north as Green Bay, as far west as Baraboo, and as far south as Rockford, IL. MPM draws visitors from every county in Wisconsin, while also pulling from further afield, and welcomes visitors from all 50 states and dozens of countries every year.
Doesn’t Milwaukee County pay to run the Museum?
No. The County provides 25% of the annual operating budget of the Museum, which is run by a non-profit organization (MPM, Inc.) that the County has hired to run its Museum and care for the collections. Every year MPM, Inc. contributes some $10 million to operate the County’s museum. These funds come through fundraising as well as revenue from admissions, gift shop sales, rentals, and so on.
While Milwaukee County has been a great partner in supporting MPM, the budgetary realities faced by the County mean the Museum cannot count on that support forever.
Does the County own the Museum?
Mostly, but it’s a little complicated.
Milwaukee County owns the collections (4+ million specimens and objects). The County owns most of the building at the 800 West Wells Street housing the Museum. Under a lease agreement with the County, a private non-profit organization (MPM, Inc.) runs the Museum and cares for the collections on behalf of the County.
What’s wrong with the current building?
There are numerous challenges.
First, the building, built in the early 1960s, is falling apart. As was described in a 2013 report by Milwaukee’s non-partisan Public Policy Forum, MPM's building had more than $30 million in deferred capital maintenance and that number has continued to increase in the years since. The County, despite its best efforts, simply does not have funds available to maintain the building — akin to the situation at the Domes and other County facilities.
Every rainstorm leads to dozens of buckets appearing across MPM to catch leaks. Old pipes have burst in storage areas and caused major damage to the public’s collections. Some of the most valuable collections are stored in the Museum basement, which has environmental and mold issues and does not meet modern museum standards. The 1960s escalators and elevators — also not adequately sized to handle current visitor demand for modern-day strollers and personal mobility devices, along with many other parts of the building, break down and are costly and difficult to repair.
With such dire facilities issues, MPM is on a path to lose its accreditation as a museum when it is next up for review in 2020. If that were to happen, MPM would be the largest museum in the U.S. ever to lose accreditation.
Second, we have learned through research by Gallagher and Associates, one of the world’s leading museum design firms, that the current building is far too large. MPM’s 480,000-square-foot building drives expenses that, as history has proven, are unsustainable for MPM in a city of Milwaukee’s size. For example, the cost to heat, light, and do basic maintenance on the current building tops $1.75 million a year.
Would it really matter if MPM “lost its accreditation”? You’d still be open, right?
Not necessarily. Museums are accredited, just like hospitals or universities, by a national body (in our case, the American Alliance of Museums, or AAM). Accreditation means the Museum meets AAM’s standards for collections care, mission, finance, and content. Were MPM to lose accreditation, we’d be at immediate and major financial risk.
For example, without accreditation, MPM would not be able to host major traveling exhibits from other museums (who often will not lend to a museum that is not accredited) — exhibits that are core to our fiscal survival. We would also be excluded from applying for many major grants from organizations like the National Science Foundation or NASA (MPM has received more than $2 million in funding from these two agencies alone in recent years), and we would likely lose local donors who would be concerned that MPM had become the largest museum in the United States to ever lose accreditation. It would be a huge black mark for MPM, and for Milwaukee, and would be national news.
While we don’t have to solve these problems by 2020, we must have a credible plan to do so in order to have a chance of retaining accreditation.
If collections have been getting damaged for years, why am I only hearing this now?
The Museum staff has been doing an amazing job of protecting the publicly owned collections from the failing building for years. Our curators and collections managers are truly the heroes of protecting and preserving the collections. Neither the County nor MPM has been in a position to find a long-term solution, but the looming reaccreditation deadline in 2020 has forced us to take action and share these problems publicly.
Luckily, nothing in the collection has been permanently damaged or lost, but MPM is one building failure or leak away from disaster.
How has the community been involved in thinking about a new MPM?
Over the past four years, we’ve spoken with and surveyed more than 10,000 diverse Wisconsinites and Milwaukeeans, including teachers, families, visitors from every part of the region, Wisconsinites who come all the time, and those who have never visited. We’ve connected with the community every place from shopping malls to the Fondy Food Market, the Indian Summer Festival to neighborhood street fairs. We’ve heard what Milwaukee wants and needs from their Museum, and have integrated those lessons into our vision for a future Museum.
There are lots of big problems throughout the State. Shouldn’t we fund solving those first?
MPM is central to addressing the big challenges our city faces, including challenges of education, climate change, poverty, environment, public health, science literacy, and many others. MPM is one of the only non-partisan institutions that spans Milwaukee’s social, economic, and racial divides to build understanding and foster conversation about how to solve these big challenges throughout the community.
To take on big issues, you need institutions that can bring everyone to the table; a visit to MPM on a busy Saturday will remind you it is one of the most diversely utilized public resources in the Wisconsin — and one of the most visited museums per capita in the U.S.
Museums are among the most trusted of any organizations in the public realm, with 87% of Americans rating museums as either the most trustworthy or a very trustworthy source of objective information — more trusted than books, the media, or the internet. Comparable Gallup surveys of American’s trust in institutions as a whole commonly have shown public trust in the military at 73%, churches at 41%, public schools at 30%, television news at 21%, newspapers at 20%, businesses at 18%, and government at 9%.
Who’s going to pay for a new Museum?
The Museum will be able to raise at least a third of the cost from donors statewide. The remaining support would have to come from some combination of Federal, State, County, and possibly City support.
The Museum had a fiscal crisis a decade ago. What’s to say this won’t put you right back into the same kind of problem?
While MPM today is fiscally much healthier than it was during that crisis (including being debt-free for the first time in two decades), the core problems that caused the fiscal crisis in 2004 still exist. Building a new Museum allows MPM to solve, once and for all, the very problems that were the primary drivers of that crisis 12 years ago. Namely, a too-large facility that is inefficient and expensive, and declining County support over time.
Don’t you get money from charging for parking?
No. The City of Milwaukee owns the parking lot connected to the Museum, not MPM. The Museum estimates parking by its staff and visitors drive significant revenue to the City annually, but none of that revenue comes to MPM, as the City of Milwaukee does not financially support the Museum.
Were any County funds spent to develop these new Museum plans?
No. The funds used to develop these Museum plans were raised from private donors.
Don't museum projects end up costing triple what they said at the beginning?
Not necessarily, no. MPM has spent several years studying its options, laying detailed plans, and working with some of the most experienced museum consultants in the world to ensure we have considered all the options and costs of a future project. Our plans are visionary and exciting for Milwaukee’s future, but also appropriately scaled, achievable, and efficient.
Hold on, will there still be free days if you build a new Museum? Will ticket prices go up?
The Museum’s goal has always been, and will remain, to be as affordable as possible to all Wisconsinites while ensuring we are fiscally responsible. Thanks to securing corporate support, we’ve been pleased to increase the number of Milwaukeeans that visit MPM free by 500% in recent years — to an expected 60,000 free visitors in 2018. While it is too early to know what the ticket prices will be in the future, MPM remains committed to accessibility for all.
Future Museum and Location
Where would a new MPM be located?
We don’t know yet. As a public institution, we want our community as well as our political and community leaders to have a voice in determining the right location. We do know that MPM has been a cultural anchor on the west side of downtown since 1884. We also know that as one of the most diversely visited culturals in Wisconsin, we want to ensure we build in a neighborhood that all of our community feels comfortable visiting. Most of our peer museums are located in either a downtown or large city park setting.
What will it look like?
We don’t know yet. We have several conceptual drawings of what it could look like, but we want to work with the community to ensure we have a world-class facility that showcases our collections, provides a superior experience for our guests and fits into — and helps advance — the architectural aesthetic of the city and state.
I don’t go to MPM. Why should I care about it?
From an economic standpoint, the Milwaukee Public Museum is a financial driver for tourism dollars for Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin. Every year, we host 500,000 attendees from all 72 Wisconsin counties, all 50 states, and from many countries around the globe. For example, our sixth-highest per-county attendance comes from Cook County, Illinois. We frequently hear from our Chicagoland visitors that they prefer visiting MPM over the Field Museum — the overall museum experience, excellent value for world-class exhibits and shows, ease of access to the City, and great hotel and dining options make visiting Milwaukee a more attractive option than a trip into Chicago. With each visit to the Museum, our neighbors from the south provide dollars for restaurants, parking, hotels, and tax revenue that supports Wisconsin.
I don’t go to MPM, and I’m no fan of Milwaukee. So really, is there any reason for me to care about it?
If you hunt, fish, hike, or enjoy Wisconsin’s natural areas, or even if you’re a foodie who wants great produce at your local farmer’s market, MPM's science, research, and collections have a direct impact on maintaining and improving the things you care about.
MPM partners with all the major universities as well as researchers working on environmental science, biodiversity stewardship, and resource management using the 4 million objects in our collection and the expertise on our staff. MPM is a significant contributor to knowledge in (and about) Wisconsin. Want to find out if modern chemicals are impacting the bees that pollinate all our Wisconsin cranberries? Compare bird DNA from 150 years ago to that same species today? A museum collection is how those kinds of research, and many others, happen.
If MPM builds a new building, will the County still own the collections?
The 4+ million object collections are owned by Milwaukee County. The collections will continue to be cared for by the private non-profit organization that runs the Museum, in partnership with the County. We don’t currently anticipate any change in this structure.
What exhibits would move to a new building?
We would take the very best of our historic dioramas and exhibits with us. We’ve moved some of them before, in fact — the current building is the fourth home of MPM in its 135-year history, and some dioramas have been moved multiple times already.
What kinds of new exhibits would there be?
Before we can truly dig-in and start designing new exhibits, we need the public to voice their support of the Museum’s plan for a new home. We still have a lot of work cut out for ourselves, but we definitely wouldn’t move the old MPM into a new building.
We’d create a new Museum with contemporary exhibits; today’s audiences expect very different things than when MPM was built more than 50 years ago. A good example is our newest exhibit, Crossroads of Civilization, which packs a deeply immersive experience into half the space of the old exhibit on the same topic. Visitors already rank it as one of the five best at MPM.
What will happen to exhibits that don’t make the move?
They will be dismantled and every significant object will be kept in the collection. All materials that are not part of the collection will be evaluated for other reuse or recycling.
Would all 4 million collection objects and specimens be stored in the new Museum building?
No. In order to keep the footprint and cost of the new Museum achievable, a significant portion of the collections will be stored off-site. It is more cost effective to operate the future Museum in two locations than it is to build one big facility to house everything. The plans for the new Museum specify one central location for the actual Museum and our most-utilized collections, and a separate, museum-grade storage facility in a more affordable part of Milwaukee County.
Why do natural history collections like MPM’s even matter these days? That’s what the internet is for, isn’t it?
Nothing beats seeing the real thing. The strength of our collections is the depth and breadth of the objects, especially as they relate to the natural history of Wisconsin and how the natural world continues to change around us.
Timeline and Next Steps
What can we expect to hear and see from the Museum over the next several years?
Above all else, we will continue to run the Museum in its current location and provide the best experience possible for the hundreds of thousands of visitors we have per year.
Publicly, we will be making the case for the future of the Milwaukee Public Museum. You are going to see and hear a lot from us. You will see us informing the public about the challenges of our current building, most of which aren’t visible to the daily visitor. You will also see us sharing and building support for our vision for Milwaukee’s next great civic project, a new home for MPM.
This all sounds great, but what are the chances it’s really going to happen?
This is Wisconsin. When we all want to get something done, we figure out a way to do it. It’s not always easy, but we are confident that Wisconsin will embrace the vision for a new building and will support getting it done.
What are the next near-term steps in this process?
This winter, we will be starting a broad community conversation about the future of the Milwaukee Public Museum across the City and the State. We have real challenges and opportunities in the years ahead and we want a chance to tell our story and hear from back from the public about our plans.
How can I support the new Museum project?
- Share this website with a friend.
- Let your elected representatives know you support the new MPM.
- Come visit!
- Or make a donation to help us make it happen.
Where can I share my thoughts or ask more questions?
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.