Milwaukee Public Museum CEO unveils more plans for new downtown location

Dennis Kois

The Milwaukee Public Museum’s new home will be a four-story building on a full city block in downtown Milwaukee, according to plans presented Wednesday by president and chief executive officer Dennis Kois at a Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce event.

Dennis Kois presented plans for the Milwaukee Public Museum’s new facility at an MMAC event.

The new building is designed to be less than half the size of the museum’s current 400,000-square-foot facility at 800 W. Wells St., which reflects a larger trend of museums scaling down their footprints as they shift away from large diorama exhibits to more technology-driven experiences, Kois said.

“This (museum) was built for another era,” Kois said. “And to be ready for the next era, we’re going to have to make sure that we build a museum that is right-sized for the community, that it is technologically-advanced and ready for next-gen exhibits and experiences, and that it’s sustainable in this community.”

Kois unveiled renderings of the new facility at a Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce event Wednesday morning, but the museum is not releasing them to the public yet. A location has not yet been determined.

As it builds a new facility, MPM is looking to position itself as a statewide institution, Kois said – and it could mean a change in branding. Renderings for the new building include the name “Wisconsin’s Natural History Museum.”

“We are the Milwaukee Public Museum and that has fundamentally been our identity for 150 years, so it will always be a part of our identity,” Kois said. “But we also have to acknowledge that we are the state’s natural history museum. There is no other research-based collecting institution in the state … We have to use that as part of our branding.”

It’s likely that the new museum’s branding would integrate the name of a large donor or company, he said.

Kois said MPM leaders face the tension of trying to preserve beloved exhibits, while also integrating new features. Plans for the new facility include more interactive exhibits like an urban biodiversity lab and citizen science projects, along with exhibits that “look and feel like old-school museums,” he said. The Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit, for example, will carry over to the new building.

“We’re going to bring the best of what this museum is with us,” he said.

Kois said the new facility will likely have a theater experience of some kind, but not an IMAX.

“The days of six-story high-dome theaters are past,” he said.

The new facility could also allow the museum to put more of its Native American material collection on display, which could draw in more visitors, he said.

Kois said MPM would ideally break ground on the project in 2022. Kois didn’t disclose the cost of the project Wednesday, but has previously floated $100 million as an estimate.

Fundraising  will be a “heavy lift,” and will require the museum to tap into resources outside of Milwaukee’s business community, Kois said.

“We’re not going to raise everything we need to raise to build a new museum just by asking the same companies and people in Milwaukee to do the same things they’ve always done,” he said. “As a city we have to get out of that mode.”

The museum will likely pursue state and county funding for the project. Kois noted the state’s recent $70 million commitment to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s proposed $120 million history museum in Madison.

The museum is also looking to expand the reach of its board by recruiting members from across the state.

Kois said MPM has expanded its community reach by increasing free museum access to low-income visitors in recent years and through a new partnership with Kohl’s aimed at bringing museum programming to underserved communities across the state.

MPM expects to announce the site of the facility within 12 months. Kois stressed that MPM will remain in the heart of the city.

“We’re not moving to Ozaukee or Washington or Waukesha County,” he said. “We’ll still be downtown.”

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