New York-based firms behind new Milwaukee Public Museum on designing authentically Milwaukee institution: ‘When we’re gone, it’s your building’

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In late September, a team of 14 architects and designers took a seven-day journey across Wisconsin. From the Capitol building in Madison to the Apostle Islands along the state’s northernmost edge to the ridge-scale complex on the Door Peninsula, the tour included sojourns in Wisconsin’s noteworthy natural landscapes and cultural institutions.

Among the group members were several New Yorkers who have been recruited to develop plans for the replacement of one of the state’s most beloved attractions.

Milwaukee Public Museum in January 2021 announced the design team behind its new future downtown home: New York-based firms Thinc Design, the exhibit designers behind the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, and Ennead Architects, whose previous projects include the Natural History Museum of Utah and Shanghai Astronomy Museum, along with local architecture firm Kahler Slater. Minneapolis-based construction firm Mortenson and Butler-based general contracting firm ALLCON are responsible for the construction of the new facility.

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The design team faces a tall order. It’s tasked with creating a new museum roughly half the size of its current home that excites future visitors, resonates with a statewide audience and inspires donors, yet also preserves elements of the museum that the community cherishes.

The fall tour of 28 Wisconsin sites commenced the seven-month conceptual design phase of the MPM project, which involves developing plans for what the exhibit layout and the future downtown building will look like. The tour was aimed at familiarizing the team with the people and places whose stories could be included in the new museum.

MPM intentionally brought on the exhibit and architectural design teams simultaneously early last year, with the goal of ensuring the building’s exterior reflects its contents, said Katie Sanders, chief planning officer with the museum.

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“It is unusual to have the teams starting out together,” said Tom Hennes, principal of Thinc. “And it’s enormously productive because the exhibition design has a set of interests in terms of storytelling and visitor experience and just thinking about the adjacency and sequence of space that the building inevitably needs to support. Conversely, the architecture has its own set of interests in terms of the impact on the city, the way people engage with the building and the spaces inside the building. So, we come at this from different perspectives but they have to converge in a single project.”

Oronde Wright, senior exhibit designer at Thinc, said the Wisconsin tour helped bring cohesion to the team.

“It was a time for us to really get to know the lay of the land, both with the mix of people from New York and the people from Wisconsin,” he said. “That was a vital part of us getting on the same page and not feeling like separate parts that are trying to get to some end goal but feeling like we are a whole (team).”

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The team aims to complete the museum’s design by March, with renderings expected to be unveiled to the public the following month. Final cost estimates for what’s been projected as a $240 million project will be determined during the design phase. In the meantime, MPM leaders continue to raise funds quietly for a roughly $150 million capital campaign.

Designers said the process of envisioning a new museum starts with understanding the spirit of the existing museum — the 400,000-square-foot, county-owned building at 800 W. Wells St. that MPM has called home since 1962. Wright said the goal is to ensure “core aspects” of the museum are carried into the new institution, but the team hasn’t yet made decisions regarding which artifacts will be put on display.

The new MPM – a 230,000-square-foot building to be built at the northeast corner of North 6th Street and McKinley Avenue – will require judicious use of the space and a greater reliance on technology.

“The footprint is going to be much smaller so we have to approach it from a strategic perspective of what’s going to come with us,” said Wright. “… We do want to make sure there’s flexibility to the space so that, as new information comes out in the scientific and public community, we can make sure we’re reflecting that and we’re not just a giant building that is static.”

Sanders said one of the priorities of the new space is to make MPM’s back-of-house collections and research operations more accessible to the public.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about what we’re calling ‘turning the museum inside-out’ and making sure that the museum’s research and collections mission is part of the visitor experience, which, at this point, it really isn’t,” she said. “You see the exhibits and some of the collections that are on display, but that research and collections management side of the museum’s mission is largely not part of the visitor experience.”

The team is also charged with developing a museum at a time of significant change in the industry, with an eye on not just creating a great institution in 2026 (when it’s expected to open), but one that will hold up for the next century, Hennes said.

“What made a great museum even 20 or 30 years ago is different from what’s going to make a great museum 20 or 30 years from now,” he said. “That’s where we need to be focusing our attention.”

In part, that will require building spaces with evolving technology in mind.

“We design with very open systems, we avoid proprietary technology, we are looking at the trends in the specific pieces of hardware, but it’s less about that, because the hardware will get replaced every few years — it has to, as a lifespan,” Hennes said. “But the sort of fundamental activity that happens in museums is person-to-person, (whether) between curators and the public, or between the public and the public, or between objects and the public. There are these different dynamics we have to accommodate, and we can begin to build those into the design now using existing technology and plan for a sequence of technology in the future.”

The team also recognizes the building also has to be authentic to the city.

“This isn’t the same museum that’s going to be on the West Coast or the East Coast. It’s of this place,” said Ennead Architects designer partner Todd Schliemann.

“When we’re gone, it’s your building,” he added. “We’re designing it for Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It’s yours.”

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