Milwaukee Public Museum President Ellen Censky’s vision for the new site

Ellen Censky knew she held an important position when she was appointed President and CEO of the Milwaukee Public Museum two and a half years ago.

The museum was at a key moment in its 137-year history. It had been at its current location at 800 W. Wells St. since 1963 and a search was underway for a new building that would reinvent the institution for the future.

What the Cedarburg native didn’t know – something no one could have predicted – was the global pandemic that struck less than a year after taking office.

But even during such an unpredictable time, Censky and his team moved forward. They’ve found a site for the new museum one block north of the Fiserv Forum and are fundraising and developing designs for the smaller, state-of-the-art building that will also house the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. The project is expected to cost $ 240 million.

It’s a process that took her, along with her team members and designers, on a seven-day tour of the state as they reflected on how Wisconsin‘s culture and nature will be represented. in architecture, design and voices that will tell stories in new ways.

It’s a process that brought new perspectives into the conversation – and that also forced an evolution in Censky’s thinking.

Below is an interview with Censky as she guides the future of the institution where she found her first job at the museum four decades ago.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: As a native of Wisconsin, what were your impressions of traveling in the state? How do you think this experience will make the new museum different from the current one?

Censky: I have always thought of Wisconsin as this beautiful state with a lot of natural wonders and also a lot of diversity and diverse cultures. But I think what was so interesting (is that) at each location we had a tour guide and it was almost like we had scripted them in advance.

In just about every location, from a visit to the Capitol to a farmer to a naturalist at a state site, they’ve all talked about the geology of that place, and it sets the tone for what’s on the earth. . They talked about glaciers – or the lack of glaciers. They talked about Native Americans, the First People of that state, and then they talked about the impacts since then.

We told them we were doing this tour, that the vision was to tell stories at the intersection of nature and culture. But they all in this intersection ended up having the same land, which really surprised me.

And then the other thing that surprised me was just the pride in sharing their stories and their real estate in sharing that connection with Wisconsin.

What this has done for me is really to confirm that these stories that sit at the intersection of nature and culture are really important.

It’s one thing you don’t get in this museum, it’s a lot of stories. You absorb them through the diorama, but you are not told that story.

In this new museum, we certainly want to share these stories. I find understanding how the natural world has shaped and influenced humans and human traditions and the way we live to be truly fascinating stories. This is what we hope for in this new museum: to be able to share these stories and tell these stories from the voices of the cultures we are talking about.

Q: How do you see yourself reflecting the different experiences that Wisconsinians have in the new museum?

Censky: That’s the only thing we plan to do in the new museum, is really to make sure these stories are shared from the perspective of the cultures we’re talking about.

If you look at the current exhibits that we have, “A Tribute to Survival” was made in collaboration with the indigenous communities of this state. And we want to make sure that we actually present the stories of all the different cultures in the state.

When I say cultures, I mean both cultures which may be ethnically different from (de) rural and urban cultures. There are so many different layers of culture. It’s that nod to the understanding that there are many ways of knowing, and we want to share those ways of knowing.

Q: The new museum should have about half the exhibition space of the current building. Why is that?

Censky: It’s because building new buildings is very expensive, and when you have exhibitions that have not changed for 65 years, it’s because it takes a lot to change exhibitions.

It’s also because there are new ways of presenting things that allow you to do things so immersive but maybe not the same style of immersion that we use here. It is the use of technology that will help us keep things up to date and up to date.

We also have a lot of exhibits here, which I’ll call traveling exhibits where you just walk past without actually committing to them. We had a big building and we filled it in, so we’re going to have to be a lot more aware of what we’re putting in this new space.

No one wants to shrink, but we have to. We cannot stay in this building. It’s not going to take us into the future.

Q: What will happen to exhibits that do not fit into the new museum?

Censky: We haven’t made any decisions about it. We don’t know what’s going on and what’s wrong.

We know that whatever happens will be reinterpreted.

(The County of Milwaukee owns the museum’s collections and these objects are subject to a collections policy. The collections will be moved to the new museum whether or not they are scheduled for display, according to a follow-up message from the museum. Decisions regarding another exhibition items and accessories will be manufactured later.)

Q: As the museum is redesigned, will there be recognition of how it came to have some of the pieces in its collection?

Censky: If we stayed in this place and had 150,000 square feet of exhibits that we had to reinterpret, we sure would.

We don’t have the great history (of the) British Museum or the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum that had these great expeditions that were going out across the world to collect.

While we have a long history, ours has been less outside this country (and) more inside this country. It is an important thing in terms of working with the indigenous peoples of this country. This is an important thing for us, is to make sure that we work with them and that we earn their trust.

We’ve been doing this for the past two years. We’ve met all the different tribes and figured out what it looks like? Part of that will be repatriation. We have already been repatriated since the 1990s.

Q: When you took on this role in 2019, you said you thought long and hard before pursuing it. A few years later, how do you think about this decision? Were there things you weren’t expecting?

Censky: I would say the first thing I didn’t expect was COVID. I have to say COVID has really turned everything upside down, but in fact we’ve continued to push the whole new museum process forward.

I will tell you that I have evolved through this whole process. Whatever I said, if I spoke about vision etc in 2019 it evolved through this process.

I say this because I am a scientist, and I really believed that science was the solution to simply because it is my experience.

But actually, I’ve really evolved, and I continue to evolve, through this whole process of really understanding these different ways of knowing. It’s just talking to different people and really understanding.

So when I tell you today about what I see in these new exhibits, it probably won’t sound like what I’m saying today, because we’ll continue to evolve as these stories flow in and that we learn more through this process.

Q: You are the first woman to run this museum. What do you think of your moment in history as you plan the institution’s next steps?

Censky: If I go back to my story, I grew up with six brothers, and I can do whatever they can. So I never thought of it in terms of me being a woman. I think I keep trying to challenge myself and do more and not let my gender dictate what I can or can’t do.

I am a herpetologist. I study amphibians and reptiles. Again, this is not something that women in the past have done.

Probably the most impactful thing I ever did in my life (was) in high school, I said I don’t take typing. And I didn’t take the strike, so I type with two fingers.

It was that thing I didn’t want to be able to rely on if I couldn’t get what I wanted. I didn’t mean to say, ‘Okay, I’m just going to be a secretary.’ I didn’t want to have this arsenal because then it kept me from falling back on something that could be considered typically what women do.

At first I didn’t realize how much of an impact it had, but I think it kind of mentally put me where I thought I was going to go. I didn’t know where it would be, but I knew it wasn’t going to do what women traditionally did.

Q: When people walk into this new museum, what do you want them to react? And what do you want them to suggest?

Censky: I hope that when they enter the new museum they will be in awe of everything they see and in addition in awe of this world we live in, its diversity and complexity.

I hope that when they leave they say, “You know what, it made me even more curious to know more about this culture or this natural history or this intersection.”

That’s what I really hope is that they walk away saying, “Wow, I didn’t think of it that way. “

Contact Alison Dirr at 414-224-2383 or [email protected] Follow her on twitter @AlisonDirr.

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