Future MPM exhibits to feature desert, island and grassland cultures and climates

Beloved rattlesnake button to move to new space as part of display highlighting Hopi people of the Arizona desert  

A sketch from Thinc Design shows a youngster hunting for the rattlesnake button in a desert exhibit in the future Milwaukee Public Museum. (Sketch courtesy of Thinc Design)

Last updated on May 12th, 2023 at 05:26 pm

In its latest sneak peek into the exhibits being envisioned for the new Milwaukee Public Museum, project leaders with Thinc Design showcased sketches for three exhibits associated with the future museum’s “Living in a Dynamic World,” galley, which will highlight the cultures and climates of the Arctic, islands, grasslands and mountains landscapes.

Each immersive landscape exhibit will include stories of distinct cultures—including a focused look at a specific individual or group of people and other species who call the landscape home today—and will show visitors unique ways of life that have developed in continuous dialogue over generations with these landscapes. Those cultures were chosen to highlight MPM’s extensive collections on indigenous people that have called the landscapes home for generations.

The Hopi and a hidden button

In the desert landscape exhibit, for instance, visitors will learn about the Hopi Nation that has long called the Arizona desert home.

Supported by the wide range of ceramics, textiles and agricultural items in the museum’s collections, the Deserts Hall will spotlight the distinct environment of Northeastern Arizona, exploring how the landscape’s dynamics – like water access, extreme temperatures and unique flora and fauna – have shaped life past and present for its residents. Visitors will learn about the cultures and traditions the Hopi people have developed in response to their environment, as well as how they have adapted their day-to-day habits to meet the land.

Exhibits will include a replica of a traditional Hopi dwelling and learn about how the land is used to build shelter. The exhibits will also highlight Hopi pottery from the museum’s vast collections and tell stories about how the landscape’s resources have influenced artisan traditions.

“We are excited to tell the story of Nampeyo, an incredibly skilled ceramicist who maintained Hopi pottery traditions by passing down her craft to her daughters and granddaughters,” Divjak said. “MPM has many of Nampeyo’s beautiful pottery pieces in its collection that will be showcased in conjunction with her story.”

Lovers of the existing museum will be heartened to know that the beloved rattlesnake and the hidden button that has brought it “to life” for thousands of visitors will have a home in one of the displays.

“At least one of the snake buttons is going to be there,” quipped Oronde Wright, senior exhibition designer during Tuesday’s presentation. “You still have to keep a sharp eye out for the others.”

Sand to grasslands

The entrance of each distinct landscape hall will be decorated with a “cabinet of curiosities,” featuring shelves and drawers containing items that define that landscape. Tactile models, clothing cases and mechanical interactives will pique interest and act as a portal to prepare visitors for the immersive experiences that lie ahead.

“‘Living in a Dynamic World,’” will take a deep, thoughtful look at the ways humans and other species have interacted with, adapted to and shaped each featured landscape, examining both the present and past,” said MPM president and CEO Dr. Ellen Censky. “The exhibits and cultures highlighted in Living in a Dynamic World were chosen with our vast collections in mind, and we’ll be showcasing both familiar and never-before-seen items in the context of cultural stories, which are being developed in consultation with origin communities.”

In addition to the Hopi Nation, the Deserts Hall will also feature a display on Ancient Egypt, providing what designers are calling a “cultural counterpoint” to the Hopi Nation and Arizona exhibit. The Ancient Egypt exhibit will explore how the desert impacted ancient Egyptians’ beliefs and practices around death, answer questions about why mummies were made and dive into the symbols, icons and myths connected to death traditions. On display in these exhibits will be collection items including funerary objects and a sarcophagus.

The Richard & JoAnn Beightol Hall: Grasslands exhibits will highlight both the African Serengeti as well as the American Plains.

Timba the Elephant and Simba the Lion, two familiar features currently on display at MPM will be on display as part of the Serengeti exhibit, as well as artifacts and displays highlighting the people and human cultures of the Serengeti, and how those communities and customs have been shaped by the landscape.

“One of the ways this cultural diversity will be highlighted in ‘Living in a Dynamic World,’ will be through the exploration of sacred animals. Looking at animals like the elephant or lion and how they relate to different cultural perspectives can help visitors learn to appreciate these species in new ways,” said Helen Divjak, senior curator, experience and interpretation at Thinc Design and a lead designer on the future museum project.

The Islands and the Artic

In the Artic Hall, visitors will learn about one of the most extreme landscapes on the planet and how, despite that, the land provides for a wide variety of life forms and cultures.

The exhibit will put a cultural spotlight on the Nordic Sami people. A key immersive scene will situate visitors on a vast northern-European tundra during a midsummer night, where dozens of reindeer will munch on moss against the background of a dusky pink sky, the summer sun still above the horizon at midnight.

Visitors will also be invited into a traditional Sami tent, or lavuu, to warm up and immerse themselves into the scene while learning more about Sami culture and customs.

Another scene will illustrate the Inuits on the North American ice during a midwinter day. Walruses from the museum’s collections will rest on ice floes against an immersive wallpaper and projection surface that creates a starry night sky shimmering with the Northern Lights. Stories about hunting and ice fishing will teach visitors about how residents of the Arctic adapt to their environments to get food.

In the Islands Hall of the gallery, visitors will learn about the impact of isolation on nature, including stories of speciation and what it means for a certain species to exist in a limited geographical area. Visitors will also learn about islands that aren’t so remote, and instead help connect people and organisms to larger land masses.

The exhibits will focus on life and cultures in the South Pacific, as well as an Indigenous people of Japan, the Ainu.

In a series of scenes that start on the surface of the water and progressively dive deeper into the sea, visitors will learn about maritime navigation and how people have gotten around islands. These exhibits will also explore the different animals and fish that live in the water, the impact that pollution has on both the ecology of oceans and islands and the communities that rely on the land for resources and industry.

This area is also one of the rare moments at the museum where there will be a window in the gallery. The natural light from outside will be used to add dimension and movement to the underwater scene as a boat floats overhead.

Macro and micro

At the center of “Living in a Dynamic Planet” will be a massive globe, animated with various global systems, such as ocean currents, seasonal migrations, trade routes and seismic activity zones, which visitors can select one or two at a time to compare the ways the world connects and how both natural and cultural systems intersect.

The galley will also feature an interactive exhibit engaging visitors’ sense of smell. “Spice of Life” will feature a scent box with three different spices. When the different spices are activated, LED lights will backlight a graphic and teach visitors how the spices have spread across the world, where they grow today and in what foods and products they are commonly consumed.

‘Mixing Zones’

Tuesday’s presentation also featured sketched of flexible display spaces that MPM is calling “Mixing Zones.” The spaces, which will provide a rotating display of artifacts, are designed to provide a way for museum researchers and staff to showcase collection items that won’t be on permanent display as they are used for cultural and scientific research. With one Mixing Zone dedicated to research and science, and the other focused on culture, each space will present visitors with new ways to look at and experience the 4 million collections items in MPM’s care.

“One of the goals of the future museum is to ensure visitors can experience unique, never-before-seen looks into the collections – including the millions of items that have historically been off-view as they are kept for scientific research,” said Katie Sanders, chief planning officer at MPM.

“The Mixing Zones will provide an opportunity for visitors to not only see the science and research that goes on behind the scenes, but to actively engage with it through hands-on and interactive experiences.”

The zones will include a three-story showcase visible from multiple floors of the future museum, the “Burke Foundation Mixing Zone,” which will give an inside look at what happens behind the scenes at the museum, and a cultural mixing zone where cultural experts can share what they are learning, where skilled artisans and storytellers can practice their craft.

The Burke Foundation Mixing Zone is being made through a $2 million gift from the Burke Foundation.

Future announcements

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 opening in late 2026.

The final gallery announcement will take place on May 23, introducing the Rainforest gallery, Puelicher Butterfly Vivarium and the Bucyrus Rooftop Terrace.

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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