Designers give preview of butterfly, rainforest exhibits at future Milwaukee Public Museum

Rainforest gallery will feature live specimens, old friends

A sketch by Thinc Design gives a glimpse of what the Puelicher Butterfly Vivarium will look like at the new Milwaukee Public Museum.

Last updated on May 26th, 2023 at 11:45 am

Many who have visited the Milwaukee Public Museum – at least since the late 1990s – consider the Puelicher Butterfly Vivarium to be a highlight of their visit, a place where they get a break from the cold and watch iridescent-winged creatures flutter by within inches of their faces.

In its latest and final sneak peek into the exhibits being envisioned for the future Milwaukee Public Museum, project leaders with Thinc Design showcased sketches for re-imagined versions of the  Puelicher Butterfly Vivarium, We Energies Foundation-funded Rainforest Gallery, and the Bucyrus Rooftop Terrace.

The Milwaukee Public Museum plans to move from from its current location on Wells Street in downtown Milwaukee to a new, five-story, 200,000-square-foot building at the corner of Sixth and McKinley Streets in the Haymarket neighborhood, near the Deer District.

Throughout the past two months, Milwaukee Public Museum and its exhibit design partners at Thinc Design have been rolling out previews of each permanent gallery to exist in the future museum, providing an inside look at a sampling of exhibits, collections items and features visitors can expect to encounter upon the future museum’s expected opening in late 2026.

In Rainforest, visitors will be transported to the tropics to learn about the biodiversity that flourishes in rainforests and the life supported by those climates.

Adjacent to Rainforest, visitors will be able to reconnect with nature and gather on the Rooftop Terrace, a space dedicated to the exploration of the outdoors.

“Our museum has long been renowned for its immersive rainforest displays, including our world-class live butterfly garden,” said Dr. Ellen Censky, MPM president and CEO. “Thanks to the generosity of We Energies, the We Energies Foundation Gallery: Rainforest will again bring visitors to some of the most biodiverse and special places on the planet, spotlighting the rich resources and abundant life that thrives in the tropics.”

We Energies Foundation Gallery: Rainforest

Designed to be highly immersive, the new rainforest gallery will transport museum goers to the forests of the tropics by leading them through a dimly lit space dressed with large tree trunks and thick vegetation, and a vibrant audioscape of gentle rainfall alongside the buzz of insects, birds and other rainforest residents.

Visitors will also learn about traditions and practices common in rainforests, including how tropical rainforests support human health and healing through medicinal plants and provide raw materials for the creation of tools. Stories about venomous specimens, medical ceremonies as well as healing and adornment practices will also be explored.

Throughout the gallery, exhibits will include specimens like beetles and birds of paradise alongside intricate beadwork and feather-work created in or inspired by rainforests, as well as some living specimens like tarantulas and poison dart frogs, and other creatures that can be found in tropical rainforests.

The new museum will repurpose many of the exhibits in the existing museum, many of which were collected over the years during explorations in Costa Rica by MPM scientists, Censky noted during a Tuesday webinar with reporters. Current MPM fans may recognize the hollowed-out tree from the current Rainforest exhibit, as well as the taxidermy howler monkey. Other familiar elements being brought to the new Rainforest gallery will include an algae-covered sloth, anaconda and oropendola nests.

In addition to the different design, the new museum moves the rainforest to the top floor of the new building, putting it within steps of the rooftop terrace and vivarium.

Although visitors can enter the Rainforest exhibit from the terrace, another option allows them to be lead there via display of dozens of bird specimens and models that will be mounted above visitors’ heads, connecting the adjacent Wisconsin Journey gallery to the Rainforest gallery.

The display is meant to evoke the annual mass migration toward the tropics that millions of species make each year to escape cooling northern climates, said Helen Divjak, senior curator, experience and interpretation at Thinc Design and a lead designer on the future museum project.

Younger children will enjoy a new “kid crawl” area, which will allow them to explore the creatures living on the underside of rocks.


The new Puelicher Butterfly Vivarium will be about the same size as the one in the current museum. The big change will be its location. Situated near the rooftop terrace, the vivarium will have glass walls, allowing the tropical plants to better thrive in natural sunlight, explained Oronde Wright, a senior exhibition designer at Thinc.

Bucyrus Rooftop Terrace

Made possible by a $2.5 million gift from the Bucyrus Foundation, the Bucyrus Rooftop Terrace will reconnect visitors to the outdoors and the natural world after time spent losing themselves among the galleries and exhibits.

Designed by landscape architects at GGN, gardens on the terrace will include native Wisconsin plantings and be designed to shift with the seasons.

In addition to space to walk around and sit among the gardens, the Terrace will function as an outdoor classroom and observation area, allowing visitors to smell, touch and see the natural world nestled right into the City of Milwaukee skyline.

The Terrace will also be an attractive place for Wisconsinites to gather for special events. More details about event spaces at the future museum will be made available closer to the Museum opening in late 2026.

Specific details about the full array of exhibits and collections items that will make up each gallery are still being determined and are subject to change as the design process progresses. Additional information about visitor amenities, including the lobby space, Museum store, café and programming, will also be shared in the future.

Cara covers nonprofits, healthcare and education for BizTimes. Cara lives in Waukesha with her husband, a teenager, a toddler, a dog named Neutron, a bird named Potter, and a lizard named Peyoye. She loves music, food, and comedy, but not necessarily in that order.

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