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Wisconsin Historical Society shares vision for $120M museum

Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Imagine speaking in real time to divers exploring a shipwreck off Door County, watching an American Indian elder describe how to harvest wild rice, climbing inside a vintage Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, then eating dishes from around the state in a classic Wisconsin supper club.

Or viewing a shawl that belonged to Abraham Lincoln, a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote suggesting the transcontinental expedition later undertaken by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, or the original film scripts for “Citizen Kane” and “Gone With the Wind.”

All in one place.

After two decades of planning, the vision for a new $120 million, 100,000-square-foot Wisconsin Historical Society museum Downtown is taking shape, driven by unprecedented efforts to reach out to places throughout the state, American Indian tribes and generations of Wisconsinites.

The state, the Historical Society, the developer Hovde Properties and landowner Fred Mohs have all long been eyeing part of a block that fronts Capitol Square and holds the current, undersized museum and surrounding properties. They envision it as the site of a joint redevelopment that, with a total cost of $255 million, could be the largest project in city history.

The new museum, which would more than double the historical society’s current exhibition space and provide learning, meeting and gathering spaces, all equipped with state-of-the-art technology, would occupy the lower floors of the redevelopment. Above that, a $90 million to $135 million Hovde-Mohs private project would offer 200,000 to 250,000 square feet of commercial space and housing, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

The project has been stalled for years. But, in early 2018, the state Department of Administration said if the Historical Society could raise $50 million, the state would deliver the remaining $70 million. Gov. Tony Evers put that money into his proposed 2019-20 capital budget, a plan the Legislature’s budget committee still has to approve.

Of the $120 million needed for the museum, $100 million would be for actual construction and the rest for an endowment and work needed to move into the new building. The redeveloped attraction is expected to draw about 150,000 people and double student visits to more than 50,000 annually. It’s also expected to finally showcase the society’s biggest artifacts and world-class collections.
Underscoring its broad appeal, former governors Tommy Thompson, a Republican, and Jim Doyle, a Democrat, served as co-chairmen of the fundraising campaign.

“This project has had a good, strong bipartisan commitment because Wisconsin deserves a museum of this caliber,” Doyle said.

Added Thompson: “Now is the time to build this museum.”

The Historical Society declined to say how much has been raised. But Historical Society director Christian Overland said, “We are ready.”

“It’s the right time for Wisconsin, too,” he said.

Today, the Historical Society, established in 1846, has one of the country’s largest collections of North American historical assets and operates 12 museums and sites. But its flagship museum has been housed in the 42,000-square-foot former Wolff Kubly hardware store building at 30 N. Carroll St. since 1984.

The museum, which draws 77,000 visitors annually, including 23,000 school children, is woefully inadequate.

It has just 17,000 square feet of exhibit space and 10-foot ceilings, half the desired height. There’s no loading dock. The front lobby can be jammed when students are arriving or leaving, and the society sometimes must turn school groups away for lack of space. The building has only two slow elevators and four bathrooms with a total of eight stalls. A 1,200-square-foot area behind the main desk serves as an exhibit, luncheon and programming space, with a large column in the middle of the room blocking views when a movie screen is used.

The building lacks wide-open vistas, a must for modern museums. Seating space is limited. Few windows offer views to the Capitol across the street.

All artifacts or exhibits must come through the front door, meaning the society can’t display big items like the Wienermobile and must severely limit the number and scale of presentations or traveling exhibits. Many of the society’s most-treasured holdings can’t be displayed because they’d be damaged by inappropriate lighting and lack of environmental controls.

The interior is being designed by Gallagher and Associates, an internationally recognized design firm whose clients include the Smithsonian Institution, Gettysburg Museum, National World War II Museum, Grammy Museum and Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

“The new Wisconsin history museum will be a profound statement of the value of history to the community,” Patrick Gallagher said.

“Knowledge of the past creates a path to guide and understand the future. The rich, diverse cultures of Wisconsin make the state an exemplary example of what this country stands for.”

The centerpiece will be a two-story, 360-degree multimedia experience space that will introduce guests to ideas they’ll find throughout the museum. The room will be lined with digital screens that can offer everything from customized greetings for grade-school groups to presentations for evening events.

For special events, a large screen can offer real-time visuals from society underwater archaeologists, curators working in the field, or Native Americans demonstrating crafts who can also interact with an audience in the room and at remote sites, including classrooms, across the state.

Themed galleries will include a “Laboratory of Democracy,” a celebration of the state’s political heritage with a broad window overlooking the Capitol. There will also be a digital presentation on the gallery’s walls of newspaper headlines drawing upon the society’s archives — the second-largest newspaper collection in North America — exploring topics visitors can choose from, such as presidential elections. Other displays will draw attention to the state’s changing demographics.

With its 25-foot-tall ceilings, the building will let the society showcase not only the Wienermobile but also the first Culver’s restaurant sign and a hand-built, Green Bay Packers-themed ice-fishing shanty, all too big to be brought into the current museum. They’re now stored at the society’s new $46.7 million, 188,000-square-foot State Archive Preservation Facility near Williamson street and the Yahara River on Madison’s eas side.

“We want it to be dynamic,” Overland said of the new museum. “It’s a way to connect people with history in different ways.”

“Our current building is static,” Block said. “This allows us to roll out the incredible resources we have. It makes all the resources of the organization available. We’re the one-stop shop for history.”

“We want people to be wowed,” Overland said.

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