Possible locations for new Milwaukee Public Museum narrowed to four sites

Milwaukee Public Museum
The Milwaukee Public Museum.

The Milwaukee Public Museum has narrowed the list of possible sites for its new home to four locations in and around downtown Milwaukee, newly-appointed president and chief executive officer Ellen Censky said Wednesday.

Not included on the shortlist: the site of the Mitchell Park Domes.

County leaders have explored the possibility of demolishing the Domes and integrating the horticultural experience at Mitchell Park into a new MPM building on the site of the current Domes, to the tune of about $267 million.

But Censky said that idea is now off the table, based on the findings of a recent study from national design firm Gallagher Museum Services.

“The study was completed and it showed that we couldn’t co-exist with them in the way that both institutions needed,” she said. “So we all came to the conclusion that the Domes (site) just wouldn’t work. We were happy to be a part of that because we of course wanted to do our due diligence and make sure that we check out everything.”

Meanwhile, she said, MPM continues to consider the option of relocating the museum to the site of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ parking structure, located northwest of East State and North Water streets. Marcus Center president and chief executive officer Paul Mathews has made a pitch for a downtown cultural campus concept that could include developing a new Betty Brinn Children’s Museum facility, along with MPM.

“The Marcus Center (site) is still on the table,” Censky said.

The museum plans to move from its current aging, county-owned building at 800 W. Wells St. to a new building within the next decade. Each of the four sites currently under consideration are in the “vicinity of downtown,” Censky said. She declined to name the other sites under consideration.

“We want to serve the audiences that we serve right now,” Censky said. “We’ve got a diverse audience. We bring in about 550,000 visitors a year, and it’s a very diverse audience, and we’re very committed to continuing to serve that audience.”

Censky said the museum doesn’t have a deadline for selecting a site. Launching a fundraising campaign is also far off, she said.

“We are in the early stages,” she said. “So we’ve got a lot of work to do before we can fund-raise.”

Leaders have said they plan to build a smaller facility than the museum’s current 400,000-square-foot building, one that is more energy efficient and able to accommodate changes in exhibits. An estimate of $100 million for a new facility has been floated in the past, but museum officials have declined to discuss cost estimates.

MPM on Tuesday announced Censky’s appointment as president and CEO. Censky was formerly senior vice president and academic dean for MPM until becoming interim president and CEO position, following Dennis Kois’ departure in August 2018. She was previously director and CEO of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and director of the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History.

As it lays the groundwork for a new building, Censky said the museum is building out a vision for its current operation. That process has involved reaching out to the community and hiring a consultant to identify the institution’s strengths. A focus moving forward, Censky said, will be to “reinvigorate” the institution’s current programming by telling stories that integrate its natural history and cultural collections.

“It’s a story that no other institution can tell in this state because no other institution has those kinds of collections,” she said. “So we’ll be really honing in on what are those kinds of stories that we can tell … about that connection between people and the environment and how people in cultures develop out of the world we sit in.”

Investing in MPM’s current home is important as it plans for the future, Censky said.

“We have to be thriving in this institution or we’re never going to be able to make the case for a new building,” she said. “So while we are planning for a new building, we are continuing to grow our own programming.”

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