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Wisconsin Historical Society unveils plans for new history center in Madison

Project brings together diverse group of architects, curators, historians as part of decades-long effort

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Exterior of Wisconsin Historical Society with view from Carroll St. and Mifflin St.
Exterior of Wisconsin Historical Society’s new center, set to open in 2027, with view from Carroll St. and Mifflin St. Photo Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society

Many of the state’s less-discovered stories will find a home at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s new history center, set to open in 2027.

The five-story, 100,000-square-foot building will replace the current Wisconsin Historical Museum located on the Capitol square. It will house nearly 290 million items and is expected to see 200,000 visitors annually.

“The idea is that we’re going to use our great North American History Collection to be a center of American history in telling Wisconsin’s story in the context of the United States, and history before that, 12,000 years ago, when humans first migrated to us,” said Christian Overland, the Historical Society’s director and CEO.

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He added the organization hopes to connect the dots between its collections, historic preservation efforts, educational programming and community engagement. But Overland said it won’t be a typical museum.

“Rather than being just a place of exhibits and galleries having content and objects, we also are designing in a way for people to have conversations and connect with history,” Overland said.

a mock-up of the new Wisconsin Historical Center
The Wisconsin Historical Society’s new history center will have lots of open space for groups to gather. Photo Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society

Since the early 1980s, the Historical Society has operated its museum in an old hardware store. That has limited how it could use some collections, such as Thomas Jefferson’s letters and treaties, Overland said.

Not anymore, as the new building promises to be state of the art as far as protecting historic relics goes.

Building will be light, welcoming, ‘as transparent as possible,’ architect says

Ralph Appelbaum Associates, an exhibition design firm known for its work on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., is leading the new center’s design plans. Engineering and planning firm SmithGroup, Continuum Architects + Planners and the Institute for Human Centered Design are also part of the project.

Monteil Crawley is an architect and principal with SmithGroup. He said the architectural vision came from thinking about the building’s location in the heart of Madison’s downtown.

“It starts to become this wonderful point for people to gather,” Crawley said. “It’s about bringing people together from all backgrounds. No matter who you are, you are welcome here.”

Visitors can enjoy views of the Capitol on the terrace of the fourth floor at the Wisconsin Historical Society's new history center in Madison.
Visitors can enjoy views of the Capitol on the terrace of the fourth floor at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s new history center in Madison. Photo Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society

Crawley said the group – which comprises at least 20 architects and engineers – spoke with numerous stakeholders from across the state to capture that essence. They started by thinking about how to portray Wisconsin’s history through architecture by drawing on stories from Indigenous communities, African American quilt makers and Polish artists, to name a few. Then, they started to layer those ideas atop the facade of the building, thinking about how to make it both inspirational and a state landmark.

He said people want to enter a space that’s “light and bright and welcoming and exciting,” one reason why the whole building is “as transparent as possible.”

Seventy percent of the funding for the $165 million center comes from the state, with the rest from private funds. Construction will begin in 2024 and should take two years to complete.

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Exhibits feature Wisconsin’s landscape, pop culture, Indigenous history

With wide windows overlooking Wisconsin’s Capitol building, the center’s lobby will be open space for community members to gather and include a retail space. A mezzanine-level wooden staircase is a nod to the Great Lakes Region and the historic Native American dugout canoes archeologists pulled from Lake Mendota in Madison, according the Historical Society. The staircase will connect to an adjoining cafe.

Crawley called the ground floor an “open public realm,” with classrooms, lunchrooms and spaces for groups to reserve for meetings.

The second floor will house a rotating community gallery and space for traveling exhibits.

There will be two permanent galleries on the third floor with one reflecting Wisconsin’s identity in American culture, featuring the 1969 Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, Hollywood films and music from Madison rock band Garbage. The other will focus on civic engagement across the state.

There will be two permanent galleries on the third floor of the Historical Society with one reflecting Wisconsin's identity in American culture, featuring the 1969 Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, among other items.
There will be two permanent galleries on the third floor with one reflecting Wisconsin’s identity in American culture, featuring the 1969 Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, Hollywood films and music from Madison rock band Garbage. Photo Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society

Overland said the Historical Society is using popular culture to bring joy and help ensure “no one’s going to ever look at us as a flyover state anymore.”

“They’re gonna say, ‘Wow, I never knew that came from Wisconsin,’” he said.

The fourth floor will include a gallery that covers the state’s ecology, agriculture and Indigenous history. Visitors can also learn about their genealogy and experience the landscape on balconies overlooking the Capitol Square and Lake Mendota.

The fifth floor terrace will have a vista of the surrounding Madison landscape, with an event space that will likely be rented out for weddings or banquets.

Overland said it’s his dream for visitors to learn about Wisconsin’s history in the context of North American history as a whole.

“And when they walk out those doors of the history center, they look at the world differently through the lens of a historical past that has defined the world we live in today,” he said.

The Wisconsin Historical Society's new history center will have a terrace, with sweeping views of the Capitol.
The Wisconsin Historical Society’s new history center will offer sweeping views of the Capitol. Photo Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society
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