Squandering Another Milwaukee Cultural Icon

Delaying maintenance on Milwaukee County infrastructure has been a key strategy out of the County Executive office under both Scott Walker and Chris Abele.

And we’ve seen the continued round and round (no pun intended) about the lack of support for the crumbling Mitchel Park Conservatory…aka The Domes. They may get a reprieve yet!

And a while back, we heard that the Milwaukee Public Museum was starting the process to build a new facility as they’ve outgrown the old one and deferred maintenance had starting to take its toll…and the building is now taking on water in the basement…putting the building and its collections at risk. But that plan hasn’t moved forward yet.

And now we have new infrastructure issues at the museum…and the county is apparently just in shrug mode…and worse.

The Milwaukee Public Museum is at risk of losing its accreditation if this year’s county budget doesn’t include money to make necessary building repairs.

Ryan O’Desky, the museum’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer, painted a dire picture of the aging museum building for members of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and said while the museum is in search of a new campus, it will be years before it moves out of its current location just west of downtown Milwaukee.

The two largest issues facing the museum is an aging air conditioning system and water leaking throughout the building. Both are endangering the collections.

O’Desky told the county’s Capital Improvements Committee this week a 300-ton chiller needs to be replaced. The chiller cools the museum’s 500,000 annual visitors during the summer months.

But more importantly, it keeps the museum’s collections at the appropriate temperature, a requirement for accreditation.

The Milwaukee Public Museum has been a world class museum for much of its life. Back in the day it was an innovator that led museums in the move from being giant curiosity cabinets to using dioramas to tell a complete story…and provide a complete environment to the amazement of their audience. It is a huge tourist attraction…and I bet most of you who grew up in the greater Milwaukee area took at least one school field trip to the museum.

I first went to the museum when the City of Milwaukee still owned it and it shared a building with the Milwaukee Central Library (remember when they had drawers and drawers of artifacts to pull out and examine?). I bought a set of star maps on one field trip that amazed me…and created my interest in astronomy and space. I remember delighting in the new museum…and as an adult taking visitors there…and my son…and now my grandchildren. It never fails to impress.

But the county is willing to squander this jewel of Milwaukee science and culture. The major repairs are big money to you and me…and given the tight county budgets…a bit of a problem…but really…it’s under $2 million.

The 30-year-old chiller shuts down two to three times per week, O’Desky said. Replacement will cost about $850,000, according to county budget documents. 

Another immediate problem is the fourth-floor roof. The Asia exhibit and a portion of the African exhibit, both on the third floor, were closed for several weeks due to water leaking, O’Desky said.

“We are very concerned because besides the third-floor leakage, it has started to seep into the second floor as well.”

Roof replacement is expected to cost more than $750,000 according to budget documents.

Milwaukee County owns the museum building and its collections.

emphasis mine

What was the county reaction? Basically a shrug and a sigh…and we’ll think about this tomorrow:

Funding to repair the museum in 2020 would come from issuing revenue bonds. No property tax dollars would be spent on these projects.

As of right now, the committee has chosen to hold both museum requests.

But it gets worse…the county is thinking like a landlord instead of an owner…and apparently this supervisor represents the general feeling:

Supervisor Jim “Luigi” Schmitt, who chairs the county’s finance committee, asked O’Desky if the museum could move part of its collection into storage, rather than fix the building.

“I’m trying to figure out something here, especially with the water issues,” Schmitt said. “The difficulty here is we’re caught in the middle, I mean how much do we do if you are leaving.”

What’s the point of having a museum if you are going to put a third of the collection in storage? What kind of bullshit is that?

The county board and the county executive really need to get their shit together and protect and expand our cultural heritage for the 21st Century…and we need to consider how they are ignoring key infrastructure when they all come up for a vote.

P.S. I didn’t find this in the local paper…what’s up with that?


Related Articles