A Personal Reflection

By: Anne Kaiser

For many of us growing up in southeastern Wisconsin, our childhood memories are colored fondly by visits to the Milwaukee Public Museum. This world-class institution of anthropology, history and the natural sciences first opened to the public in 1884 and currently operates from its 1960s-era building at 800 West Wells Street in downtown Milwaukee. 

Changes in store for the beloved museum involve closure of the present location and a move to a new site at the northeast corner of Sixth and McKinley Streets, also in downtown Milwaukee. While changes such as this can feel daunting, particularly for those with cherished experiences often spanning several generations of a family, they also provide an opportunity to celebrate all that is most beloved about a location like the Milwaukee Public Museum.

As I grew up, my family enjoyed regular visits to the Milwaukee Public Museum. My maternal grandfather was an active member of the museum’s Board of Directors, and my maternal grandmother served as a volunteer docent there for over 25 years. I celebrated several of my childhood birthday parties there with friends, and our family always looked forward to attending the Behind the Scenes night with my grandparents, an opportunity to see fascinating sights in the upstairs workspaces of scientists and anthropologists. I remember gazing at drawers filled with exotic insect specimens and entering a spacious room where fossils were examined and dioramas prepared. I carried my own fossil home after one such visit and still have it in a box of cherished nature and science treasures. Later, inspired by my love of both the Museum and world cultures, I spent two of my college summers as an intern in the Anthropology Department. I drew and catalogued exquisite beaded saddlebags, moccasins and more for the NAGPRA program, venturing back and forth between the museum’s storage areas and the Anthropology wing offices for my work. 

My experience of the Milwaukee Public Museum has been a magical one, as I imagine it has been for many whose lives share similar paths. When I was a child, the promise of an afternoon at the museum sparked excitement, anticipation, and curiosity. Where else could I travel to foreign lands without leaving my home city? I was captivated by the Museum’s immersive, colorful, captivating exhibits; for example, each holiday season, I gazed eagerly into the many windows of the replica homes in the European village, eager to find those representing my own countries of origin. As I grew, my mom shared with me details of our family’s special connection to this phenomenal space. I learned that my maternal grandparents had brought back items from their world travels specifically for Museum exhibits in the European Village and the Middle Eastern/Iranian exhibit. As an adult, I return to the Museum and continue to view my favorite exhibits with a sense of discovery. Perhaps this is another gift of the Milwaukee Public Museum—its exhibits grow along with the viewing public, always revealing new pieces of knowledge, carefully crafted details, and hidden surprises that allow visitors’ sense of fresh, childlike wonder to flourish.

The Museum offers chances to see realistic dinosaurs up-close (or to avert eyes if such a sight was too frightening); to view captivating, sparkling gemstone specimens only an arms-length away; to walk through a replica village of homes from selected European countries or to venture to the plains of Africa; to stand inside a replica igloo and hear the rush of arctic wind and the howls of huskies or admire pow-wow dancers and listen to rhythmic drums; to venture to the depths of the ocean, watching for the ominous grasping arm of an octopus (while remaining on dry land); or wander down the cobblestone streets of our yesteryear city and work a real water pump in the Streets of Old Milwaukee. More recently, the Butterfly Wing has allowed visitors of all ages to stand amidst beautiful tropical butterflies from around the world and maybe even share a momentary encounter with a fragile, floating friend. And the Imax theater and planetarium round out the Museum’s incredible sensory experience, allowing people of all ages to witness large-scale movie presentations or view the night constellations in stunning perfection.

The beauty of our Milwaukee Public Museum lies in so many facets of its design—in artful presentation and skillfully replicated displays, knowledge and breadth of information, and the wealth of opportunity for discovery on many levels. The Museum’s strength lies in its abundant immersive experiences, exhibits that engage all the senses—a Central American outdoor marketplace; a vibrant rainforest; a retreating glacier; dinosaurs in battle; a lion hunt on the plains of Africa. With the Museum’s expansive and varied collection and exhibits, visitors might find something that speaks to them personally, an exhibit that inspires further exploration or prompts continued discovery, even outside the Museum walls.

Through a variety of educational opportunities, programs, tours and more, the Museum’s educators share enthusiasm and knowledge with the public. In addition to the Museum’s permanent exhibits, visitors are treated to diverse world-class traveling exhibits. Shows in recent decades have included topics such as dinosaurs, ancient Egypt, spiders and more.

Parting with the current location of a cultural institution like the Milwaukee Public Museum is a difficult, emotional process for many. The Milwaukee Public Museum has captivated generations of school children and families; indeed, people of all ages can probably name at least a handful of favorite memories housed in this world-class institution’s space. 

Moving forward, the Museum, once housed in its new location, will strive to excite minds and build memories on par with those inspired by its current space. While the new space will be different, artfully crafted world-class exhibits will continue to inspire and delight visitors. 

For those who hold Museum exhibits and memories dear, the challenge will be to continue to keep alive the memories of well-loved exhibits like Streets of Old Milwaukee, while transitioning into visits to the new space, minds and hearts kept open to possibility, learning, expansion and growth. While the future Milwaukee Public Museum may not create exact replicas of each of the current favorite exhibits, the hope is that the new space, with its re-imagined exhibits, will spark the same passion that the current Museum inspired for decades.