Milwaukee Public Museum is offering a first look at the design of the new downtown museum — which is inspired by a well-known Wisconsin state park.
The five-story museumto open in 2026 at West McKinley Avenue and North Sixth Street, will be a primarily concrete and glass structure.
Its exterior design is reminiscent of the geological formations in Mill Bluff State Park, which overlooks Interstate 90 near Camp Douglas, in central Wisconsin.
The building’s exterior texture will mimic Mill Bluff’s ancient rock columns, with its rounded corners portraying the erosion and weathering that happens as landscapes evolve.
Mill Bluff was among the dozens of Wisconsin museums, parks and other landmarks visited by the museum’s design team, led by Todd Schliemann and Jarrett Pelletier, of New York-based Ennead Architects, and including architects from Milwaukee’s Kahler Slater.
The creation of the park’s bluffs over thousands of years, and the impact of water in that process, is “kind of a metaphor for the entire state of Wisconsin,” Schliemann told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Said Pelletier, “Mill Bluff struck us because of the experience we had as we explored it.”
“It was something that had so many layers to it that begged you to explore more,” he said.
A nod to Milwaukee’s rivers
As for the interior design, the convergence of Milwaukee’s three rivers — the Milwaukee, Kinnickinnic and Menomonee — is inspiring the look for a public commons atrium, Pelletier said.
The rivers joining together is a metaphor for the commons area bringing together people of varied backgrounds and cultures, he said.
The first floor commons, featuring a sunlit light well, will be open to anyone, including people not visiting the museum, during the day. It will include public restrooms and access to a cafe.
At night, the commons will allow the museum to host private events for up to 400 people.
Also, the museum’s four upper levels of exhibit space will be offset from floors in the museum’s collections storage area.
That design will allow visitors to peek through windows at collections that are not part of public exhibits or dioramas — what Pelletier called “this kind of secret science” that usually is “hidden away.”
Those collections include insects, plants and fossils.
Native plants part of displays
The new museum will also feature two native plant gardens, one near the McKinley Avenue main entrance and the other on the rooftop.
A separate 50,000-square-foot off-site storage space will house additional collections.
Which of the museum’s current exhibits will be on public display in the new building is still being determined.
The new 200,000-square-foot building will include exhibit space totaling 80,000 square feet.
It will be much more cost-effective to operate than the current museum — a 480,000-square-foot facility with around 150,000 square feet of exhibit space.
That building, which opened in 1963 at 800 W. Wells St., is too large, inefficient and in need of $70 million in deferred maintenance projects. It would cost $250 million to renovate.
The new facility, tentatively named the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture, will include more culturally relevant exhibits, museum officials said.
The cost of designing and constructing the new museum and its exhibits is estimated at $190 million. Additional costs include $25 million for the museum’s endowment, $20 million to move the collections and $5 million to pay for the fundraising campaign and project management.
Of that $240 million tab, $110 million has already been raised.
That includes $40 million from the State of Wisconsin, $45 million from Milwaukee County and $25 million in private donations.
Private donors include JoAnn and Richard Beightol, Lynn and Douglas Brengel, Bucyrus Foundation, Melitta S. and Joan M. Pick Charitable Trust, David and Julia Uihlein and We Energies Foundation.
New campaign launches
The museum is now launching the next phase of its Wisconsin Wonders fundraising campaign
“This is a bold project that will have a transformative effect across the state and around the world,” said Jay Williams, former museum president and campaign co-chair with his wife, Madonna.
“Our community has the privilege and opportunity to reimagine what this beloved institution can be and further our mission to inspire curiosity and knowledge of our world’s natural and cultural diversity,” said museum President and Chief Executive Officer Ellen Censky, in a statement.
Museum officials want to begin construction in late 2023.