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Maintenance Issues Leave Milwaukee Public Museum In Danger Of Losing Accreditation

MPM Asking County To Fix Leaky Roof, Air Conditioning System

Milwaukee Public Museum exterior
Mark Danielson (CC-BY-NC)

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.

“Best-case scenario, we’ll be breaking ground in 2022,” O’Desky said. “We have 4 million collections that need to be moved, we don’t have a site and we haven’t started a capital campaign. Movement is pretty far out.”

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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.

Next summer, the American Association of Museums will visit Milwaukee so the Milwaukee Public Museum can receive its 10-year reaccreditation.

“(The chiller) is very important to reaccredit the museum and to keep the museum open when it does get warm out,” O’Desky said.

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.

“As we get heavier rains and snows, we are going to have to close our floor again, which does not allow our visitors to see a number of our collections that we have,” 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.

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

The Capital Improvements Committee is hearing from department heads this month, including the museum, before making recommendations to County Executive Chris Abele and the county board. Abele will present his 2020 budget to the board on Oct. 1.

The Capital Improvements Committee uses a scoring system to determine which projects will be bonded for, which will use taxpayer dollars and which projects won’t move forward.

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

A third major project also needs to be done at the museum: an emergency stairwell and bathrooms on the main floor need to be replaced following water damage.

O’Desky said the county has already approved an $80,000 study to look at those issues, but he estimates it is a multi-million-dollar project that might not work, so museum officials would like to find another solution.

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.”