Milwaukee Public Museum, Betty Brinn Children’s Museum make plans to co-locate in future facility

Undisclosed site identified, but not yet finalized

Milwaukee Public Museum

Last updated on September 4th, 2020 at 12:20 pm

The Betty Brinn Children’s Museum will be a tenant of the Milwaukee Public Museum’s planned new facility under a recently approved agreement between the two organizations.

The new alliance will allow the children’s museum and natural history museum to co-locate while remaining two separate entities, leaders said.

“While the details of the alliance between MPM and BBCM remain to be ironed out, this marks the first critical step in what will be a years-long process to create a space where our community can enjoy two world-class museums under one roof,” said Ellen Censky, president and chief executive officer of MPM.

MPM has identified, but not yet finalized, a potential site in or around downtown for the proposed new museum. Censky did not disclose the exact location.

MPM leaders have been laying the groundwork for several years to move from the current aging, county-owned building (completed in 1962) at 800 W. Wells St. to a new building.

Betty Brinn Children’s Museum has also been examining its options to move out of its home of 25 years at 929 E. Wisconsin Ave. The current facility is too small for BBCM’s needs, said executive director Brian King.

“Even in pre-COVID times, our museum floor isn’t as large as we’d like,” King said. “…We’ve squeezed every last bit of space out of it that we can. There’s no expansion possibility.”

Colocating with MPM’s new facility will allow Betty Brinn Children’s Museum to “design a children’s museum space from scratch and create a museum floor of our dreams,” King said.

Betty Brinn Children’s Museum

Previous conceptual designs have envisioned the new MPM building encompassing a full city block in downtown Milwaukee and others showed it along the city’s lakefront, which is already home to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Discovery World and the War Memorial Center.

Former Marcus Performing Arts Center president and CEO Paul Mathews, prior to his departure last year, promoted the idea of relocating MPM and BBCM at the site of the Marcus Center’s parking structure located northwest of State and Water streets — a site that officials have been planning to redevelop for years.

The leadership and boards of the two museums have spent the past few months, while their doors have been closed due to COVID-19, exploring the potential collaboration. MPM reopened in late August with new social distancing measures in place. BBCM remains closed.

Prior to the pandemic, MPM attracted about 550,000 visitors annually, and BBCM saw about 200,000.

Both institutions have come under new leadership in the past two years, with Censky taking the helm of MPM in the summer of last year, followed by King’s appointment at BBCM two months later.

“It’s a big win for the community,” Censky said of the new alliance. “It also allows for synergies between the two organizations. … We’ve yet to explore what all those could be because we’ve just taken the first step, saying we want to be under one roof. Now we have time to explore that and do it in a thoughtful way.”

Censky stressed that the museums will remain distinct experiences for visitors.

“People shouldn’t be scared they’re losing MPM or Betty Brinn,” she said. “We’re co-locating, but separate.”

“You will definitely know when you’re in the children’s museum or when you’re in MPM,” she added.

While the co-location discussions predate COVID-19, King and Censky said the timing allows both organizations to plan for a new facility mindful of the need for social distancing.

“The timeframe of the project we’re contemplating is sufficiently long that we can and should continue down this path without getting too wrapped up in ‘What about COVID?’” King said. “(But) it’s good to know this at the design stage. I believe children and families will return to in-person museum experiences. I don’t think those are gone. They’re coming back. So, we’re forging ahead in that way with a mind toward toward designing spaces that are a little different.”

Lauren Anderson is an associate editor and covers health care, nonprofits and education for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism.

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