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.


Accession Number: 2207Catalog Number: N/A

Milwaukee Public Museum Curator of Anthropology Dr. Samuel Barrett collected these items while on a Museum expedition to the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in 1910. He witnessed an eight-day dance which brought Native Americans from all over Wisconsin and as far away as Oklahoma to the reservation. In addition to collecting material objects for the Museum, he recorded field notes about the dance and other cultural aspects of the Ojibwe that would rarely have been seen or documented otherwise. This collection contains over 1,000 objects that are primarily everyday items such as cooking utensils, baskets, and this pair of snowshoes. Many of these items are on display in the Second Floor Woodland exhibit area.

Accession Number: 28854Catalog Number: E66368

This blanket is thought to have come from the Koniag people of Kodiak Island, Alaska. It is made of two layers of tan eider skins sewn together with 52 eider throat skins along the edges. These blankets are very rare and were prized for their warmth. The Museum is fortunate to have one other in its collection, which also comes from Alaska.

Accession Number: 16163Catalog Number: N/A

This collection was obtained from the Ndyuka of Suriname, a small Caribbean country on the northeast coast of South America. The Ndyuka are one of the six major Maroon groups living in either Suriname or nearby French Guiana. Maroon is a term used to denote the descendants of African runaway slaves from Dutch plantations during the late-17th and early-18th centuries. The culture is thus strongly rooted in West and Central African cultural traditions with some Amerindian influences. The collection of over 50 items, the majority donated by Peter French in 1945, relates to everyday activities, such as kitchen utensils, a laundry beater (as pictured here), and hammocks. Few museums in the United States have collections from the Ndyuka. See Ndyuka items exhibited on the Museum's Third Floor where the African and Latin American Halls converge.

Accession Number: 7287, 7322, 7557Catalog Number: N/A

Several pipe bowls and stems of the Iowa tribe have entered into the collection of the Milwaukee Public Museum thanks to the efforts of Alanson Skinner, a former curator of Anthropology. The exquisite craftsmanship of each pipe is a testament to the importance of the ritual of smoking during ceremonies by the ruling members of society. The bowls of the pipes are made from a stone known as catlinite and the stems are made from ash wood. Decorations on the stems include wrapped porcupine quills and feathers and sometimes bird skins. Each pipe is a representation of a different creature, including a lizard, a raccoon, a wolf, pigeons, and black bears.

Catalog Number: N/A

The Increase A. Lapham Memoir Book is a collection of dried, pressed plant specimens and other mementos collected by Lapham or sent to him. The front page is signed by Lapham and dated 1867. Plants include seaweeds, mosses, lichens, ferns, and flowering plants collected throughout the United States and Scotland mainly in the 1860s and early 1870s. Lapham, who came to Wisconsin in 1836, was a true renaissance man who had many interests including the flora of the state, fossils and minerals, Indian mounds, and weather.

Accession Number: B00572Catalog Number: 158367

This item is the type specimen of Tennessee quillwort, Isoetes tennesseensis. A type specimen is the plant or animal used to describe a new species or variety and is the specimen which the new name is permanently attached to. The Tennessee quillwort was discovered in the Hiwassee River in Tennessee and its name and description was published in 2003 in the American Fern Journal. All of the Botany Department's type collection has been scanned and the digital images will soon be available on the Museum's website.

Catalog Number: 284

This early plant specimen was collected by Thomas Bruhin, a Catholic priest who came to Wisconsin in 1869 and was assigned to a parish in New Coeln, now part of Milwaukee County. Bruhin collected many plants from the surrounding area and gave them to the Wisconsin Natural History Society which, in turn, donated them to the newly formed Milwaukee Public Museum in 1883.

Accession Number: 10910Catalog Number: 72179

The Harbinger-of-Spring, Erigenia bulbosa, was thought to be gone from the state of Wisconsin; its last state record was this 1932 collection specimen. Once found in late April and early May in rich mesic woods in the southeastern part of the state, it was rediscovered 68 years later in a rich sugar maple-beech woods farther north than it was believed to exist.

Accession Number: 7937Catalog Number: N/A

This specimen is part of the Huron Smith Ethnobotanical collections. It was gathered during the 1920s when Smith was doing fieldwork among the Indian tribes of Wisconsin. He recorded the native name and use for the 1,600 plants he collected. This important collection was recently conserved using archival materials and rehoused in new cabinets, thanks to an IMLS grant. Smith's specimens, field notes and publications can now be viewed on the Museum's website here.

Accession Number: 9402Catalog Number: A34008

The Milwaukee Public Museum's Pre-Columbian Gold collection comes from Peru, Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Mexico. Until the mid-1900s, such items were worth more as scrap than as artifacts and were melted down, losing a great amount of information. For this reason, museum collections are vital in providing information on Pre-Columbian gold working.

This artifact is a hollow jaguar fabricated from 12 pieces of sheet-gold. It dates to the Earliest Moche period (400-100 BC) and is from the Lambayeque Valley in northwest Peru. The jaguar is one of a set of seven identical pieces that were made by the same craftsman. The other jaguars in this set are in museums in Chicago, Richmond, Montreal, Lima, Munich, and Hamburg. This object and other examples of Pre-Columbian gold are on exhibit on the Third Floor mezzanine.

Accession Number: 18048Catalog Number: N/A

Milwaukee Public Museum director Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi spent many years excavating in and around Lake Amatitlán in Guatemala. This area was occupied over a great length of time by the Maya, from 500 BC to the Spanish Conquest (about AD 1500). Many items were brought up from the lake by divers, including several ceramic censers, containers used to burn copal incense, which played an important role in Maya rituals. The Milwaukee Public Museum is one of the primary repositories of artifacts from sites from this area. The Museum website has a page on the Lake Amatitlán collection and its history. You can also see the Lake Amatitlán exhibit on the Museum’s Pre-Columbian mezzanine.

Catalog Number: N/A

Once the most common bird in North America, the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) or wild pigeon lived in enormous migratory flocks that some estimate were between three  to five billion upon European arrival.

The species went from being one of the most abundant birds in the world during the 19th century to extinction early in the 20th century. Some reduction in numbers occurred because of habitat loss when the Europeans started settling further inland. The primary factor emerged when pigeon meat was commercialized as a cheap food for slaves and the poor in the 19th century, resulting in hunting on a massive scale. Martha, thought to be the world's last passenger pigeon, died on September 1, 1914  in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Milwaukee Public Museum has more than a dozen passenger pigeons in its Vertebrate Zoology department collection.

Catalog Number: N/A

Over several decades, James R. "Jim" Neidhoefer, a local businessman with a passion for butterflies and moths, donated his collection of more than 100,000 specimens plus several hundred volumes of rare books and monographs on Lepidoptera.

Within this extensive collection are several hundred gynandromorphs, aberrant forms showing male characteristics on one side of the body and female on the other, and sexual mosaics, displaying mixed female and male characteristics. Gynandromorphism in particular is a rare condition that occurs in perhaps 1 in 50,000 moths and butterflies. The result is an error involving the sex chromosomes in the first cell division and the butterfly or moth is born sterile.

The photo shows Phoebis argante, a Sulfur butterfly (from Santa Catarina, Brazil). The bilaterial gynandromorph is shown between a normal male (left) and female (right) of the same species.

Thanks to Mr. Neidhoefer's donation, the Milwaukee Public Museum houses one of the largest and most extensive collections of these gynandromorphs in the world.

Accession Number: 29123Catalog Number: N/A

This collection of 21 items contains some of the most exquisite pieces in the Museum's Mesoamerican archaeological collection. Thomas Fifield, lawyer and Museum board member, and his wife Marilyn amassed the collection through art galleries, primarily in New York. Promised as a gift to the Museum many years ago, they were formally donated in 2006, just months before Tom passed on.

The "Artist's" Vase depicted here is Late Classic Maya (550-950 AD). The scene portrayed is that of a ruler being dressed inside his palace. One attendant holds a mirror as another presents the ruler with an elaborate mask or headdress. In contrast to other scenes of sacrifice and ritual, this is an unusually informal scene.

Accession Number: 3639Catalog Number: N/A

George West, a Milwaukee lawyer with a strong interest in archaeology, helped found the Wisconsin Archaeological Society in 1903. West also served on the Board of Trustees of the Milwaukee Public Museum for 32 years, for most of which he was president. Particularly interested in Native American pipes and smoking customs, West began collecting pipes around 1873 and continued to do so for several decades. The West pipe collection consists of 516 pipes; the majority are Native American. They represent all typical pipe styles found in the United States, three-fourths of them from Wisconsin. His is the largest single collection of Wisconsin pipes, and his two volume set Tobacco, Pipes, and Smoking Customs of the American Indians is still a primary reference.

Accession Number: 17802 and 17803Catalog Number: N/A

Trinidad, one of the islands forming the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in the southern Caribbean, has been ruled by several previous European powers, the last being Great Britain. On this small island, people from the various cultures of Asia, Europe, Africa, and native groups live and interact. This rare collection is from the East Indian peoples on the island and was collected by Milwaukee Public Museum Curator of Anthropology Dr. Arthur Niehoff in 1957. The East Indians were brought to the island by the British as indentured servants. The collection, one of only a few in the United States, is important since it shows the cultural exchange and influence that has occurred between the East Indians and the other groups inhabiting the island.

Catalog Number: 10108 - 10175, 10185 - 10189

The Swiss Lake sites were first excavated in the mid-1840s and popularized by Swiss archaeologist Ferdinand Keller. Their interpretation as villages located over the lakes brought them much acclaim and made the collections from the sites' excavations much sought after by museums worldwide. Today, it is known that some, but not the majority, of these sites were built over water. They date from the Neolithic through the Bronze Age (4000 BC-700 BC). The sites are known for preservation of organic materials such as plant remains, wooden artifacts, bone, and textiles, like the one depicted here, that do not usually survive in the archaeological record. Most of the Swiss Lake collection at the Milwaukee Public Museum comes from the site of Robenhausen, Switzerland, located east of Zurich.

Accession Number: 8117Catalog Number: N/A

The Museum's Chamacoco Collection consists of 70 objects, such as this belt ornament made of tropical bird feathers, and represent items both for everyday use and for ceremonies. Collected in 1925 by the Museum of the American Indian in New York, they came to the Milwaukee Public Museum that same year. The Chamacoco live in the Gran Chaco region of northwest Paraguay. The Chamacoco today alternate between their traditional hunting and gathering and more recent light agriculture, craftsmanship, or labor. Their population has dwindled from several thousand to approximately 1,000 people today, and few museums in the United States have such collections.

Accession Number: 18046, 20517Catalog Number: N/A

The Milwaukee Public Museum has approximately 860 Peruvian textiles in its South American collection, a large portion donated in 1964 by collector Malcolm Whyte. Most of these items were obtained from the southwest coast of Peru and are associated with burials. The intricate textiles preserved by the dry, hot climate of the Peruvian desert coast, illustrate a variety of weaving and decorative styles, representing several different cultural periods. Items from the collection can be viewed on the Third Floor Pre-Columbian Mezzanine.

Accession Number: 21749Catalog Number: 60764

This ostrich shell belt was made by the San (Bushmen) of Botswana, a country in southern Africa. Ostrich shells play important roles in their culture, serving not only as beads for body ornamentation, but also as water storage containers, essential in the hot, dry environment in which the San live. To make beads, the egg shell is broken into small fragments, which are further shaped by hand into circular pieces. A small hole is drilled through the center of each bead. The whole process is by hand, so considerable time would have gone into the making of this belt. Jewelry made from ostrich shell is worn almost exclusively by women.

Accession Number: 15310Catalog Number: 51596

The painted Blackfeet elk skin robe in the Museum's collection came from Montana and is believed to have been painted by Mike Left Arm, showing his own exploits. The paintings depict primarily horse stealing scenes. Horses were important to the Blackfeet way of life, and it was a great achievement to acquire them through theft.

Catalog Number: 300

This Crow gun case was collected by Colonel J. J. Upham, a Milwaukee native, during his military service in the mid- to late 1800s on the Western frontier. Upham collected a variety of American Indian materials while stationed at military forts. His collection was donated to the Museum by his wife shortly after his death in 1898. The gun case is an excellent and rare example of Crow leather craftsmanship and bead working ability.

Accession Number: 17435 and 23800Catalog Number: N/A

The Mexican Kickapoo reside on a reservation in the Santa Rosa Mountains of Coahuila. They originally inhabited land in northwest Ohio and southern Michigan, but were forced westward to northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin in the mid-1800s. They slowly spread westward into Kansas and south into Oklahoma, some reaching as far as northern Mexico. This collection comes from 1954 fieldwork conducted by Dr. Robert Ritzenthaler, Milwaukee Public Museum Curator of Anthropology, and from anthropologists Dolores and Felipe Latorre between 1960 and 1972. The Mexican Kickapoo are relatively isolated and reluctant to allow visits by outsiders. The collection, primarily consisting of clothing, basketry, and German silver jewelry and adornment is one of the largest collections of Mexican Kickapoo items in the United States.

Accession Number: 12017Catalog Number: E41793

The Carl P. Dietz Collection of business machines currently numbers approximately 1,200 machines of which 900 are typewriters. The collection reflects the diversity of typewriter manufacturers and the development of machines from the 1870s to the late 1980s. The Dietz Collection holds Museum-made models of the earliest typewriters designed by Christopher Latham Sholes, post-1873 Remington production models, and many seminal typewriters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The business machine collection is supplemented with a collection of typewriter trade literature (manuals & advertisements) and the James Densmore Papers related to the refinement of the Sholes typewriter.

Carl Praetorius Dietz (1875-1957) came to Milwaukee with his German immigrant parents in 1881. Dietz worked in various business endeavors before his election as justice of the peace in 1902. A well known socialist party member, he later served as an acting judge and City comptroller. He left office in 1912 to develop an insurance agency and was again elected to public office (10th Ward Alderman) in 1918. Dietz served on the board of the Milwaukee Public Library, was a Mason, a Knight of Pythias, and a member of the Old Setter's Club of Milwaukee. Carl P. Dietz worked with the Milwaukee Public Museum from the 1920s until his death to build a collection of typewriters memorializing the work of Sholes and to place the typewriter squarely in Milwaukee and American history.

Accession Number: 28709Catalog Number: 66371

This impressive ceramic storyteller was made by renowned Southwest artist Mary E. Toya of Jemez Pueblo in the early 1980s. At 19 inches tall and with 115 children attached, this is one of the largest and most intricate pieces of its kind. Storyteller figures symbolize the wisdom of elders and illustrate the importance of contact between generations. The value of stories is highly prized by American Indians and oral history is still a means of educating young people in the traditional knowledge and values of their cultures. The Museum acquired this piece in 1997 through the generosity of the late Donald S. Ackerman, his son Mark Ackerman, and his daughter Francine Huxley.