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 about 100,000 school children on annual field trips from schools as far north as Phelps, 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 about 25% of the annual operating budget of the Museum for collections care and building costs, both of which are owned by the County. MPM 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 more than $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 its financial 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 also owns most of the building at 800 West Wells Street, which houses 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, while none has caused irreparable damage it could happen someday. Some of the most valuable collections are stored in the Museum basement, which has environmental and mildew issues and does not meet modern museum standards. The 1960s escalators and elevators — which are 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 at risk 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. 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 for our needs. 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 $1.5 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 might 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 part of 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 $6 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?
None of the collections has been irreparably damaged. 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.
How has the community been involved in thinking about a new MPM?
Several years ago, we reached out into the community to get an understanding of what they wanted in MPM. More recently, in our visioning process for a new MPM, we had workshops, sent questionnaires, conducted interviews, and held town hall meetings to connect with members across the community. We will continue to do this as we move forward with plans.
There are lots of big problems throughout the State. Shouldn’t we fund solving those first?
MPM has been a part of the fabric of Milwaukee for almost 150 years. Because the leaders of this community had the foresight to create an institution that could bring people from all walks of life together, MPM has helped shape the community and will continue to play that role.
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's financing will be a public-private initiative.
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.
Will any County funds be spent to develop the new Museum plans?
No. The funds used to develop Museum plans come from private donors.
Future Museum and Location
Where will the new MPM be located?
We don’t know yet. We do know that MPM has been a cultural anchor on the west side of downtown since 1884. Our priority is that the new home of the Museum be easily accessible -- both physically and financially -- to all who are interested in attending.
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 more than 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. 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's scientists partner 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 allows for the research to answer these, and many other, questions.
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 anticipate any change in this structure.
What kinds of new exhibits would there be?
MPM has been cutting edge at many times in our history. As we envision a new museum, we hope to continue to be cutting edge in our design of exhibits, but we will always be immersive and objects based.
What will happen to exhibits that don’t make the move?
They will be dismantled and every artifact and specimen will be kept in the collection. All materials that are not part of the collection will be evaluated for other reuse in the new museum 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, some 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 Milwaukee County.
Why do natural history collections like MPM’s even matter these days? That’s what the internet is for, isn’t it?
The bulk of MPM's collections are research collections, they are libraries of life on Earth. Collections tell us the history of the Earth and of life on Earth. They help us to understand the changes that have occurred and therefore to understand the current state of the Earth and plan for its future. They are irreplaceable because you can never go back in time to collect them again.
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 high-quality experience the hundreds of thousands of visitors we have per year have come to expect.
As we move forward through the planning for a new Museum, you will see and hear a lot from us as we embrace a new vision for the future of 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 Museum and come alongside us to see it through to completion.
What are the next near-term steps in this process?
We are currently in the planning process for the new Museum. Our next milestone will be rolling out our vision for the new Museum.
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!
- Make a donation.
Where can I share my thoughts or ask more questions?
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.