Wisconsin Wonders: Frequently Asked Questions

Why is MPM moving? 

There are several reasons why MPM is pursuing a new facility, but the most important is that the Museum will not be able to sustain operations into the future in the current building.

The building, constructed in the early 1960s, has approximately $100 million deferred capital maintenance. Milwaukee 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-owned facilities.

Every rainstorm leads to dozens of buckets appearing across MPM to catch leaks. Old pipes have burst in storage areas and, while none of these events have caused irreparable damage, there is a risk to our collections. Some of the most valuable collections are stored in the Museum’s basement, which has environmental/mildew issues and does not meet modern museum standards. As a result, when the American Alliance of Museums evaluated MPM for reaccreditation, it noted the deteriorating building condition was putting the safety of the collections in jeopardy, and therefore, tabled MPM’s accreditation until we could show significant progress toward the development of a new Museum.

Furthermore, many parts of the building, including the 1960s escalators and elevators — which are not adequately sized to handle current visitor demand for modern-day strollers and personal mobility devices — break down and are costly and difficult to repair.

The structure itself was originally constructed without insulation or moisture barriers, resulting in decades of humidity and temperature control issues that jeopardize the collections and result in significant utilities expenses.

Why was MPM’s reaccreditation contingent on progress toward a new museum?

In July 2022, MPM was awarded reaccreditation by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the highest national recognition afforded the nation’s museums. Accreditation signifies excellence to the museum community, governments, funders, outside agencies, and the museum-going public.

In 2021, AAM tabled its reaccreditation decision, citing inadequate facilities due to deferred maintenance. AAM required MPM to address those concerns, both in the short-term and long-term in order to receive reaccreditation.

MPM collections staff, security, facilities and custodial teams instituted rigorous efforts to ensure the safety of the artifacts and specimens in MPM’s care while the institution remains in its current location – efforts which have protected the collections from any irreparable damage. MPM also secured $40 million from the State of Wisconsin and $45 million from Milwaukee County to go toward the $240 million needed for a new museum, which will include state-of-the-art storage facilities onsite and in an additional 50,000-square-foot offsite storage facility.

Alliance Accreditation brings national recognition to a museum for its commitment to excellence, accountability, high professional standards, and continued institutional improvement.

Prior to 2022, Milwaukee Public Museum was last accredited in 2007.

Where will the Future Museum be located?

MPM is excited to be located next to the growing Deer District in downtown Milwaukee. The Future Museum will be located in a new building to be constructed at the northeast corner of Sixth and McKinley Streets.

MPM has been in the same neighborhood for the entirety of its nearly 140-year history. Building on that legacy, the 2.4-acre site on Sixth and McKinley meets all of the Museum’s physical requirements, is adjacent to other entertainment, dining, and retail assets in the Deer District, and will provide abundant access to visitors from near and far via freeway and bus routes.

What will be the size of the new Museum?

The Future Museum building will be approximately 200,000 square feet, plus the Museum will utilize a 50,000 square-foot offsite storage facility for a portion of the collections. MPM staff worked closely with the design team to ensure the new Museum is the perfect size to explore big concepts and share important stories in dynamic ways, while also giving unprecedented views into collections areas.

Unlike our current building, we are intentionally designing a structure that assigns purpose to every inch of square footage, reducing wasted space, and thereby drastically cutting utility costs in the new building. For example, the use of compact storage means we can use a fraction of the square footage to store collections, compared to the amount of square footage we are using now. In addition, the current building houses the former Discovery World site, which takes up 35,000 square feet of unused space. Looking toward the future, we want to be better stewards of the resources needed to run the building.

What was the inspiration behind the new building design?

In designing Wisconsin’s museum of nature and culture, our team of architects were inspired by Wisconsin itself– its people, its history, its nature and its natural wonders. 

Mill Bluff State Park was a key point of architectural inspiration, apparent in the shape of the building and its textures. The bluff-inspired modular shape of the building means that neighboring floors will be offset, enabling visitors to look into and preview different exhibit floors and to gain insight into collections that are apart from the Museum’s exhibits.

We also pulled inspiration from Milwaukee, namely the three rivers – the Milwaukee, Kinnickinnic and Menomonee – that converge in our City. We envision the new Museum as a gathering space and as a point of confluence, bringing diverse groups of people together to commune, to learn and to educate one another. 

This new Museum will inspire curiosity, awe and wonder not only through our exhibits and collections, but through the architecture and layout of the structure itself. 

What materials will be used to create the building?

The building will be constructed using concrete created to look like light sandstone – the same materials from which the "Cream City" earned its name. This durable material can be sourced locally and can take on color and the textured characteristics we plan to design into the surface. 

Who is designing the new Museum?

MPM has hired a world-class team of exhibit designers, architects, and general contractors to create and build the new Museum.

Ennead Architects and Kahler Slater will make up the architecture team. Ennead, with offices in New York and Shanghai, brings national and international expertise to its building designs. Ennead’s past work includes the Natural History Museum of Utah and the Shanghai Astronomy Museum. Meanwhile, Milwaukee-based architect firm Kahler Slater has a wealth of knowledge and experience designing buildings here and around the state, including Milwaukee’s BMO Office Tower and UW-Madison’s Kohl Center. Kahler Slater brings a local perspective to the project that is important when considering the immediate neighborhood where the site is located, the unique landscape that makes up this part of the country, and Wisconsin’s influence on the rest of the world.

GGN, a landscape architecture firm based in Seattle, will develop the landscape design. GGN offers extensive experience in designing high-use landscapes in complex, urban contexts. GGN is the recipient of the 2017 ASLA National Landscape Architecture Firm Award and the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Landscape Architecture in 2011. The firm’s project awards include ASLA National Awards of Excellence, ASLA and AIA Honor Awards for Design, Tucker Design Awards, Society for Campus and University Planning Awards, and Great Places Awards from the Environmental Design Research Association.

Thinc Design, a New York-based firm, will be charged with developing the Museum’s overall theme as well as the individual exhibit designs. Few design agencies specialize in exhibits and even fewer have experience designing natural history museums. Both were a must in our search, and Thinc checked those boxes. Thinc has led projects for a wide range of museums, science centers, aquariums, zoos, theme parks, corporations, and governments, including the National September 11 Memorial Museum and the California Academy of Sciences.

Mortenson will oversee construction of the new building, using their experience in constructing complex venues such as Fiserv Forum to bring the vision of the community, MPM leadership, and the aforementioned creative teams to life. Mortenson is headquartered in Minneapolis and has offices across the US, with one of its largest located in Milwaukee. Mortenson is partnering with ALLCON, a local, Hispanic, woman-owned general-contracting firm on the project. Established in 2009 and headquartered in Butler, Wisconsin, ALLCON specializes in carpentry and electrical disciplines.

More information on the design, architecture, and construction team behind the new Museum can be found here.

What kinds of exhibits will there be?

The exhibits in the Future Museum will explore the interconnectedness of nature and culture, telling stories of how humans have been shaped by the natural world, and how our cultures have, in turn, shaped the world around us. There will be four floors of exhibits, with galleries (several exhibits under one common theme) about Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the world, and the deep past, as well as a rooftop butterfly garden and a Planetarium:

  • Time Travel – A gallery dedicated to exploring the deep past, including when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, through three of the planet’s geological chapters: the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras.
  • Wisconsin Journey – A gallery focused on the geological wonders and strong and varied cultures of Wisconsin – from the Driftless Area to the Northwoods, the Apostle Islands, the Great Lakes, and Wisconsin's vast prairielands.
  • Milwaukee Revealed – A gallery that will immerse visitors in city streetscapes they can explore to learn about the history of Milwaukee, the people who came to settle and live here, and its interconnected systems, neighborhoods, and ecologies (and where future generations of children can shop for a sweet treat).
  • Living in a Dynamic World and Nature and Culture Connectors – Living in a Dynamic World: A gallery that takes visitors on an unconventional journey to five distinct ecosystems across the globe, where they will be immersed in the landscapes and cultures that occupy them.

    Nature and Culture Connectors: Two spaces, including the Burke Foundation Culture Connector, dedicated to turning the Museum “inside out” with behind-the-scenes views into collections areas, flexible displays, public interaction, and special events and programs.

  • We Energies Foundation Gallery: Rainforest, Puelicher Butterfly Vivarium, and the Bucyrus Rooftop TerraceWe Energies Foundation Gallery: Rainforest: A gallery that transports visitors to the tropics to learn about the biodiversity that flourishes in tropical rainforests and the life rainforest climates support.

    Puelicher Butterfly Vivarium: An exhibit that welcomes visitors into a warm, lush greenhouse thriving with real tropical plants and live butterflies flying freely throughout the space.

    Bucyrus Rooftop Terrace: A gathering space that reconnects visitors to the outdoors and natural world.

MPM has been cutting-edge at many times in our history. As we envision a new Museum, we will continue to be cutting-edge in our design of exhibits, but we will always be immersive and objects-based. Technology will be an important tool to ensure the exhibits are updated, relevant, and accessible, enhancing the experience MPM visitors expect, but technology will not be the focus of the exhibits. We can assure you, this will not be a museum full of screens. 

We will honor the legacy of the current Museum and some aspects of the exhibits will be familiar, but we have the opportunity to reimagine the museum experience and design a natural history museum to serve future generations of learners, just as our predecessors did when building this Museum for us. Email us at future@mpm.edu to share your feedback.

What will happen to the current exhibits and items on display when the Museum moves?

It’s important to distinguish between exhibits and collections. The collections are the items and specimens that have been collected or donated to the museum, which are used for research and/or put on display for the education and enjoyment of visitors. MPM has more than 4 million items in its collections, and they are owned by Milwaukee County. These items will be moved to the new museum building or to offsite storage.

Exhibits are created to display collections items and to share the knowledge gained from the study of the collections. Within the current exhibits, there are also non-collections components, such as fake plants, mannequins, painted backgrounds, built-in storefronts and many more examples that have been created to put the collections items into context for visitors. Since we are still in the process of designing the future museum exhibits, we are still determining which non-collections exhibit items and elements will be included in the new museum. The new museum will not open until early 2027, giving our team plenty of time to plan.

Who owns what in the current Museum?

Milwaukee County owns the building that the Museum is located in as well as the more-than 4 million objects and specimens in MPM’s collections. MPM is a private nonprofit that leases the building from the County to run Museum operations, care for the collections, and oversee the permanent and special exhibits.

If MPM builds a new building, will the county still own the collections and the building?

The county will continue to own the Museum’s collections. However, the new building will be owned by the Museum. Under this new structure, the county will still provide some annual funding toward collections care but will no longer be responsible for building costs.

When will construction start?

A ceremonial groundbreaking celebration was held on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Construction will begin in June 2024.

When will construction end?

The new Museum is due to open sometime during early 2027.

Will the project leverage minority-owned businesses in the construction process?

A minimum of 50 percent of the construction workforce will be from Milwaukee County - with 40 percent from Milwaukee’s Residents Preference Program and a minimum 20 percent of professional services will be classified as “disadvantaged business enterprises.”

What are the next steps in this process?

We are currently in the Design Development phase for both exhibits and architecture. This means drilling down in greater detail on floorplans, specific exhibits, visitor experience, and building materials and systems.

Get sneak previews of exhibits here. Take a look at the conceptual renderings for the building here.

Demolition and abatement continues at the Future Museum site ahead of breaking ground.

Will the current Museum be open while the new Museum project moves forward?

The current Museum will remain open throughout much of the time that the new Museum is being built. There will likely be a brief period of time once construction wraps up in 2027 when both Museums are closed to the public as we finish moving from one building to the other and also take time to train staff in the new building. 

How will a new Museum be funded?

The Museum's financing will be a public-private initiative, to include $90 million in public funding and $150 million in private funding.

As of March 2024, we have raised $80 million in private donations and secured $85 million in public funding for a total of $165 million. Of the public funds, $40 million has come from the State of Wisconsin and $45 million has come from Milwaukee County. Another $5 million in public funds is expected to come from federal grants.

You can learn more about the project funding here.

What is the total cost of the project?

This is the largest cultural project in the city and state. Moving a natural history museum is a significant undertaking! The total project budget is $240 million, which includes the design and construction of the new building and exhibits, packaging and moving the 4 million objects and specimens in the collections, and endowment funds for the future operations of the Museum.

How is the community involved in planning for a new Museum?

Several years ago, we began engaging the community in conversations about what people want in MPM now and into the future. More recently, in our visioning process for the Future Museum, we have conducted workshops, surveys, interviews, and town-hall meetings to connect with members across the community. We will continue to engage with neighbors, partners, and Wisconsinites as we move forward with the new Museum process. Email us at future@mpm.edu to share your feedback.

How can I make a gift to the Wisconsin Wonders project?

All gifts to Wisconsin Wonders should be made to Historic Haymarket Milwaukee (HHM), a separate nonprofit that exists for the sole purpose of developing the Museum project. Please contact us for more information on how to make a gift:

Julie Quinlan Brame
Senior VP of Development

Kaye W. Leszczynski
Senior Director of Major Gifts

Annual Fund gifts are still made to MPM directly to sustain current operations, and we’re grateful for your needed support!

Will there be naming opportunities for gifts to the Future Museum?

Yes! Naming opportunities start at $100,000 and we are happy to discuss ways to help you honor your family and loved ones in the Future Museum. Please call Julie Quinlan Brame at 414-278-6986 or Kaye Leszczynski at 414-278-2792 to start exploring some ideas.

Where can I share my thoughts or ask more questions?

Email us at future@mpm.edu to share your feedback.