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Milwaukee Public Museum

The Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM) is a natural and human history museum in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The museum was chartered in 1882 and opened to the public in 1884; it is a not-for-profit organization operated by the Milwaukee Public Museum, Inc. MPM has three floors of exhibits and the first Dome Theater in Wisconsin.


MPM was one of several major American museums established in the late 19th century. Although it was officially chartered in 1882, its existence can be traced back to 1851, to the founding of the German-English Academy in Milwaukee, WI. The academy’s principal, Peter Engelmann, encouraged student field trips, many of which collected various organic, geological, and archaeological specimens kept at the academy. Later, alums and others donated models of historical and ethnological interest to the collection.

By 1857, interest in the academy’s collection had grown, so Engelmann organized a natural history society to manage and expand the collection. Eventually, the collection, which had come to be informally called “The Museum,” exceeded the academy’s ability to accommodate it. August Stirn, a city alderman and member of the national history society, obtained legislation from the state legislature for the City of Milwaukee to accept the collection and take the measures to establish “a free public museum.”

Early years

The newly formed Board of Trustees hired Carl Doerflinger as the museum’s first director and rented space to place exhibits. The Milwaukee Public Museum opened to the public on May 24, 1884. Doerflinger emphasized using MPM’s exhibits for study, research, and public education until he resigned in 1888. He also urged the city to purchase land to construct a building to house the museum and the Milwaukee Public Library; the new building (at 814 W. Wisconsin Avenue) was completed in 1898.

In 1890, Carl Akeley, a taxidermist and biologist noted as the “father of modern taxidermy,” completed the first museum habitat diorama in the world, depicting a muskrat colony.  Henry L. Ward was hired as MPM’s fourth director in 1902; previously, the museum had focused solely on the natural sciences: this changed when Ward began the creation of a History Museum. Samuel A. Barrett, the recipient of the first doctorate in anthropology awarded by the University of California, was selected to head an anthropology-history department to further this goal.

Modern History

Construction on MPM’s current building began in 1960 and was completed in 1962. The current site is at 800 W. Wells Street, a block north of the old Museum-Library building, still the home of the Milwaukee Central Library, which continued to house exhibits until 1966. Bed Bug Exterminator Milwaukee

A controversy over the imposition of admittance fees on visitors who were not residents of the City of Milwaukee led to the museum being sold by the city to Milwaukee County in 1976. In 1992, amid assertions that the museum was on the verge of bankruptcy and might have to be sold or wholly privatized, a compromise was reached in which the county retained the museum’s nominal ownership. Still, all operating control was handed over to Milwaukee Public Museum, Inc., a not-for-profit controlled by local business interests such as Miller Brewing. Employee wages and benefits were slashed, but private donations expanded, and the county’s share of costs was diminished.

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