In a clear sign that the Milwaukee Public Museum must address its facility problems, the American Alliance of Museums has tabled MPM’s application for re-accreditation.
Accreditation is an important standard of excellence for museums and a loss of that distinction would be a tremendous blow to MPM and its reputation and prestige. Accreditation serves as a national recognition that a museum is operating at high standards, and it lends credibility when seeking funding.
Museums seek re-accreditation every 10 years. Typically, the AAM either approves accreditation for another 10 years, denies accreditation or tables its decision for a year so specific issues can be addressed.
MPM’s request for re-accreditation has been tabled by the AAM because of significant problems with its facility. Chartered in 1882, the Milwaukee Public Museum’s current facility in downtown Milwaukee opened in 1962. The facility has served MPM well and it has been a jewel of the community for decades. But it has deteriorated significantly and its problems, including leaks in the roof, put its priceless collections of artifacts at risk. The facility faces an estimated $87 million in deferred maintenance projected over the next 20 years, just to keep the doors open, according to MPM president and CEO Ellen Censky.
It is clear if MPM doesn’t solve its facility problems it will lose its accreditation. To avoid that happening, MPM must continue to make progress and eventually must complete construction of a new facility.
That certainly won’t be easy. MPM is working on plans for a new $240 million museum facility, which would also be the new location for Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, northeast of North Sixth Street and McKinley Avenue downtown. The natural history museum itself is expected to cost $170 million. Other project costs include site acquisition, transition costs, endowment costs, moving collections and building out space for BBCM.
That is a high price tag. By comparison the Bradley Symphony Center project is costing $139 million and the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Quadracci Pavilion (designed by Santiago Calatrava) cost $130 million. Those projects required huge fundraising efforts and the new MPM facility will be yet another massive lift for Milwaukee’s philanthropic community.
Gov. Tony Evers requested $40 million in state funds for the new MPM facility. That will be a tough sell to the Republican-controlled Legislature. If MPM is going to get state funds, the name of the museum might have to be changed. How does “Wisconsin Public Museum” sound? Perhaps it is time to identify it as not just a local treasure, but a state treasure.
The design of the new MPM may be an even bigger challenge than the fund-raising. The museum is known for its iconic diorama displays, but some of it feels dated and appears unchanged since the 1960s. The challenge will be to design a modern museum that will appeal to younger, tech-savvy visitors but also captures the nostalgia of its iconic displays. It will be a tricky needle to thread.