Collection Highlights

137 Objects, 137 Years

MPM curatorial staff have selected 137 of the most important, unique, or interesting objects and collections to highlight during our 137th anniversary year.

Many of the items featured below are not on exhibit due to their fragile nature. These items reflect the broad scope of the over 4 million-plus objects in the Museum's collections. One of the Museum's primary goals is to preserve objects for generations to come.

As a virtual exhibit, we can share with people around the world our most rare and intriguing items without harm to them.


Catalog Number: E427-558; E12961-13085

R. N. Hawley, a native Milwaukeean, was a surgeon on the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. While on several voyages to northern Alaska and Siberia, Hawley collected material from various Inuit (Eskimo) groups. The collection, acquired by the Museum in 1900, consists of 255 objects that include fishing equipment, models of kayaks, carved walrus tusks, and housewares made from bone and wood. The early date of Hawley's collection illustrates the more traditional forms of these types of native items, prior to the groups modifying items for tourism. Objects from this collection are currently on display in the Third Floor Arctic exhibit.

Accession Number: 5781Catalog Number: A25149

The Old Copper Complex (Culture) Collection contains native copper items made in the Great Lakes region from 3000 - 1000 B.C. The source for the copper was a Wisconsin quarry on Lake Superior; the raw copper and finished items were traded throughout the Midwest. The earliest copper items were utilitarian in nature, such as fish hooks and projectile points. Around 1500 BC, more items of personal adornment were appearing, a change thought by archaeologists to signify increased social stratification.

The Milwaukee Public Museum's Old Copper Collection consists of approximately 1,200 items, the majority of which were surface finds. Of these, 153 are rare examples of Wisconsin Old Copper artifacts from Fredrick S. Perkins, a native of Wisconsin and self-taught authority on Old Copper. Another group of 89 artifacts came from a 1945 Milwaukee Public Museum excavation of the Osceola site in southwest Wisconsin led by Curator of Anthropology Dr. Robert E. Ritzenthaler. Items from this collection can be viewed in the Second Floor Wisconsin Archaeology exhibit. Learn more about this collection here.

Accession Number: 4615Catalog Number: E17296

This rare thunderbird suit was acquired by Milwaukee Public Museum Curator of Anthropology Samuel A. Barrett during a 1914 - 1915 expedition to the Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) territory on northern Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland of British Columbia, Canada. The mask and leggings are mostly wood, while the headdress and suit are primarily eagle feathers. The thunderbird is an important figure in the Kwakwaka'wakw culture and is considered an ancestor in some tribes. The suit is displayed on the Second Floor in the Northwest Coast exhibit.

Accession Number: 3101Catalog Number: N/A

This collection came to the Museum through a 1911 summer expedition to the Hopi reservation in Arizona led by MPM Curator of Anthropology Samuel A. Barrett. The collection consists of about 3,300 items. The collection documents a wide variety of items from baskets and clothing to spiritual items, as well as pigments and tools used in their production.

Highlights from this collection include ceramics, such as the one depicted here, from Nampeyo, or "snake that does not bite," who is credited with revitalizing Southwest pottery during the turn of the twentieth century. Utilizing pot designs from prehistoric Sikyatki earthenware, Nampeyo incorporated her extraordinary abilities as an artist with ancient methods and images.

Barrett traveled to the Tewa village of Hano on the First Mesa in Northern Arizona to photograph and collect some of Nampeyo's work. Due to Barrett's meticulous collecting and recording, the Milwaukee Public Museum houses an extensive assortment of Nampeyo's work, including the materials and tools she used to create her pots.

Several items from the collection are part of the Second Floor Southwest exhibit.

Accession Number: 19533Catalog Number: N/A

The Waiwai are a native Amerindian group living in southern Guyana (formerly British Guiana) and northern Brazil. There are approximately 200 Waiwai living in Guyana and 2,000 in Brazil. Of the native groups in Guyana, the Waiwai have remained the most traditional, but have still been influenced by missionaries to the region. The 33 items in this collection mainly represent everyday items such as basketry, bow/arrows, and body ornamentation. The collection was acquired in 1965 on an expedition led by Lon W. Mericle, a Museum Research Associate in Anthropology. Few museums in the United States have material produced by this tribe.

Accession Number: 21591Catalog Number: N/A

The Mambila (Mambilla) are an agricultural group that inhabits northern Nigeria and western Cameroon. Gilbert Schneider of Ohio University collected in the Mambila grasslands of northern Nigeria from 1947 to 1951. Schneider tried to obtain materials relating to all aspects of Mambila life ranging from ancestral objects, such as this terra cotta shrine figure, to clothing. He kept detailed records on how the items were used by the Mambila, key information for museum collections. In addition to the Mambila exhibit in the Museum's African hall, see the Museum's webpage on the largest Mambila collection outside of West Africa. Learn more about this collection here.

Accession Number: 13864Catalog Number: E57416

This cradleboard and cover were collected in Oklahoma City by George Gorton of Racine, WI who donated it to the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1962. It was made by a master beadworker named Doyetone around 1904 for her grandson William "Bill" Bear.

The Kiowa are a Plains tribe that traditionally hunted buffalo in the area that is now Oklahoma and Kansas. Cradleboards and covers were used to carry infants while freeing the hands of the mothers while they work. This particular cradleboard is very intricate and in comparison to most cradleboards. The cradleboard, with a blue silk lining, features a leather cover that is almost entirely decorated with beads in floral and corn motifs.

Accession Number: 20874Catalog Number: N/A

Dr. Nancy Oestreich Lurie, then with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, collected these items in 1967 from the Tłįchǫ (tɬhĩtʃhõ), formerly called Dogrib, for the Milwaukee Public Museum during a research trip with Dr. June Helm of the University of Iowa. The Tłįchǫ live in the Northwest Territories, Canada between Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake. Dr. Lurie and Dr. Helm were the first anthropologists to conduct extensive ethnological research with the Tłįchǫ. The Museum’s collection reflects a variety of aspects of Tłįchǫ domestic life.

Accession Number: 6161Catalog Number: Siberian Coat

The Milwaukee Public Museum purchased this coat from the Commercial Museum in Philadelphia, PA in 1919. Thought to be collected in the 1890s, this child's coat is made from fish-skin and decorated with a red and black border. Fish-skin coats are warm and waterproof, and are typically used as a kind of raincoat, usually large enough to be worn over a skin or bird parka for added protection from the wind and rain. Garments made from fish-skins are more often used by groups that live near rivers or the sea. Intact fish-skin clothing from such an early date is quite rare.

Accession Number: 19445, 24988, 22192, 25437Catalog Number: N/A

The Lacandon are an indigenous Mayan-speaking group living in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Today, only 300-500 Lacandon remain. One of the few groups not fully colonized by the Spanish, the Lacandon retained their indigenous religion until recently. The Museum's collection includes 113 objects widely representative of the group's material culture. Peter Thornquist collected most of the items in 1979 while visiting the Lacandon village of Metzabok, Mexico. The collection is important since it reflects items before tourism encroached the area. The Milwaukee Public Museum currently has a webpage  on the Lacandon collection and culture. Also, see the Lacandon exhibit in the Latin American Hall on the Museum's Third Floor.

Accession Number: 27728Catalog Number: E65507

This feather cape was bought at an auction in England by William Sturtevant in 1987 with funds from the Milwaukee Public Museum's Friends of the Museum. It is believed to date to the 1830s and was made as part of the Iroquois "whimsy" complex, possibly by the Ottawa or Huron. The cape's feathers come from male and female mallard, gadwell, peacock, goose, and pheasant. The cape is sewn together with feathers and the neck ties are made from yellow silk. It is thought that the cape was produced for sale specifically to Europeans, as it matches the European fashion requirements of that time. However, the techniques utilized are based on older traditions of the tribes. At least 50 or so capes of this type are known to exist and few are in such good condition.

Catalog Number: E186

As an incredibly ornate piece of hunting equipment, this quiver and arrow set that came to the Museum in 1900 is a stunning example of Comanche craftsmanship. The shafts of all the arrows are stained a different color and are adorned with feathers. The quiver itself is made from cougar fur and has a fringe of cougar skin pieces that hang from the bottom. White, yellow, red, and blue beads are woven in a geometric pattern on the shoulder strap and  the fringes.

Catalog Number: E24

This large cotton cloth covered in drawings from the Rosebud Reservation in south-central South Dakota is known as a "winter count," and came to the Museum in the late 19th century. Sketched in pencil, the cloth is adorned with an array of figures and objects from Sioux culture including tipis, houses, animals, trees, and horses with riders. This object held much importance as the historical record of the tribe. Images representing special events would be sketched onto the count to aid the memory in keeping history alive.

Catalog Number: E28

Children's clothing from North American Indian cultures, other than moccasins, is unusual to find in many museums. This little girl's dress is in exceptional condition and is among the earliest items to be cataloged in the Museum.

Catalog Number: N/A

The Mathiak Collection of Freshwater Mussels of Wisconsin includes specimens from over 250 rivers and creeks in Wisconsin, provides information regarding the mussel population in Wisconsin over time, and gives rise to future research topics. The collection also features endangered species in the state of Wisconsin such as the Villosa iris, or Rainbow Shell mussel.

Harold A. Mathiak worked for the WI-DNR as a biologist until his retirement. He then spent the next five years doing his freshwater mussel survey across the state, subsequently publishing a book on his findings as a Research Associate at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point.

Catalog Number: E294

This rare quiver, now attributed to the Nez Perce tribe, was originally thought to be either Shoshone or Arapaho. Made from otter skin, this cylindrical case is covered with geometric patterns of pigment. There is a bull's eye design on the bottom of the case.

Accession Number: 7153Catalog Number: E29724

In the late 1870s, U.S. Senator Daniel Voorhees was given a Mandan man's shirt by a member of an Indian delegation to Washington D.C. The shirt was later passed on to Professor John D. Mack of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who sold it to the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1921. This elaborate tunic style garment consists of two buckskins sewn together. Four large extensions of fabric hang down from the central and most decorated portion, and extensive bead and quillwork adorn the shoulders of the garment. Based on the amount of porcupine quillwork versus beadwork present, it can be determined that this shirt was made prior to the reservation period of the Mandan people, probably between 1845 and 1879.

Accession Number: 7651Catalog Number: 31842

An intricate system of incised images on wooden boards such as this served as a visual record of an event. Dream or memory boards were typically an Ojibwe tradition, but tribes, including the Menominee, produced them as well. The figures on horseback, buildings, and geometric designs served as mnemonic devices for the owner of the board.

Accession Number: 7758Catalog Number: E31980

Paintings from the 19th century Plains tribes serve as narratives of important historical events. This piece was made at Standing Rock Agency (now Reservation) in North Dakota. Painted on a large sheet of muslin, 19 male figures and 15 horses are complemented by an additional 35 horse heads in the lower left-hand corner. Each individual figure appears to float on the surface of the muslin, as there is no evidence of a horizon. The scene represents the heroic deeds of the members of a Sioux group known as Gall's Band, one of the last American Indian bands to surrender to the US army, as they waged hand-to-hand combat with a group of Crow warriors.

Accession Number: 27931Catalog Number: E50402

Originally from England, Samuel M. Brookes moved to Milwaukee in the 1840s and found a niche in the local art scene by painting portraits. He was commissioned by the Wisconsin State Historical Society in 1858 to paint important Native American chiefs and settlers of the area. This large oil painting is supposedly of the Menominee chief named Oshkosh. A tremendous amount of dignity is visible in the expression and posture of the man in the painting, along with a sense of his importance in Wisconsin history.

Accession Number: 12122Catalog Number: N/A

Spiro is an archaeological site in eastern Oklahoma consisting of 12 mounds. Occupied from AD 1100-1450, the site was a ceremonial, mortuary, and trade center. The elite of Spiro had the power to obtain materials exotic to the region from such places as the Appalachian Mountains, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Gulf of California. The site of Spiro Mound was destroyed in the mid-1930s by treasure hunters. Perishable materials such as textiles were well preserved and widely sold and dispersed by the looters to individuals and museums. The severity of the looting left little other than these collections as the basis for any analysis of the site. The Milwaukee Public Museum's Spiro collection is composed of 22 items, primarily textiles and sheet copper fragments.

Catalog Number: E25

This Shoshone war shirt was collected by E. C. Leffingwell of Milwaukee in 1878 north of Fort Washakie in west-central Wyoming and purchased by the Museum in 1900. War shirts were decorated with the owner's individual war triumphs, common materials being quills or beadwork, ermine tail pendants, red stroud, and tassels of horsehair or human hair wrapped in strips of trade blanket.

Catalog Number: N2166

This belt was obtained along the Kuskokwim River in southwestern Alaska. The Unegkumiut, Kiatagmiut, and Ingalik groups are the most likely sources for its production. Three hundred and fifty one sets of caribou incisor teeth are attached to leather, with a fringe of Russian trade beads and fox canine teeth. The belts were made by men but worn by women as displays of the man's hunting ability. Each set of teeth represents one caribou. These belts were usually family heirlooms that were thought to have curing powers which increased with the age of the belt. This belt, the only one of its kind in the Milwaukee Public Museum's collections, is approximately 300 years old.

Accession Number: 18046Catalog Number: N/A

There are 115 pieces of archaeological Peruvian featherwork in the Museum's collection. A majority of the items come from the collection of Malcolm Whyte, a former Milwaukee attorney and civic leader, who donated them in 1964. Most of these items come from the southwest coast of Peru, and some are believed to be from the Inca civilization (approximately AD 1400-1532). The items are very delicate and rare. The dry air and heat of Peru preserved them in burials for several hundred years. Objects from the collection can be seen on the Third Floor Pre-Columbian Mezzanine.

Accession Number: 17109Catalog Number: E55440a,b

The boat and paddle were made by the Crowsheart Mandan at Fort Berthold, North Dakota in the early 1900s. This boat is made from a large cowhide, though traditional boats were made from buffalo. The bull boat has a bent-pole framework covered by the hide, which makes it waterproof. Circular boats are rarely found in North America and were only used for crossing rivers and streams, not for long journeys. This boat is 5.5 feet in diameter with sides 1.5 feet high and could carry up to five people.