Inside the Milwaukee Public Museum is a streetcar that subtly rumbles as it travels — not along physical distance, but metaphorically through time. It is the new entrance of the reopened Streets of Old Milwaukee, and exemplifies the alignment of innovative technology with a proud sense of history in this storied exhibition.
In January 1965, the Milwaukee Public Museum first welcomed visitors into the Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit, a life-sized diorama of a city street at about the turn of the 20th century. The use of cobblestones, building facades and houses, plus characters and lighting, brought visitors back in time.
The exhibit remained popular for five decades, an especially impressive feat considering the concurrent transformations in technology and popular culture. For its 50th anniversary, MPM has rewarded the exhibit with a bit of freshening up, drawing the Old Streets into the 21st century.
Familiar Names and Places
The new streetcar entrance enables visitors to travel back to the early 1900s.
Many of the buildings are familiar to Milwaukeeans, but they are not necessarily in the right geographic location. Julian Jackson, MPM’s director of exhibits and design, says their goal with the exhibit is to convey a representative sample of structures from that era.
Strolling the streets, Milwaukeeans may recognize numerous names and businesses still around in the present day. The Pfister Hotel is emulated by opulent front doors decorated with frosted glass, through which people mingling in the lobby can be seen. Sendik’s Food Market is represented in a nascent stage by a fruit cart, alluding to the building of businesses from humble beginnings. The installation also highlights Milwaukee’s industrial character with the inclusion of businesses like the Falk Corporation.
A Sensory Experience
Jackson is one of the key persons behind this project, along with Al Muchka, curator of history collections. For Jackson, technology and storytelling are integral parts of his work. As an exhibition designer, he knows that telling a story does not just mean placards of words, but using elements that appeal to all of the senses.
That goal manifests itself in various ways in the revised exhibit. An immersive new soundscape blends in the clop of horses’ hooves, the call of a newspaper editor, the patter of rain and singing birds, among other sounds. The bakery shop features smells of yeast and bread. Shadows of moving figures now appear in the translucent windows of upstairs rooms.
A free smartphone app expands the scope of the exhibit by including virtual guides. The app offers a choice of three characters: a young Irish-American woman striving to make a career in vaudeville, an African-American man developing a trade as an electrician with a love for competitive cakewalk dancing and a female Milwaukee socialite of German descent. They “accompany” the visitor through the exhibition, each sharing stories from their own perspectives along the way.
The lives and interests of these audio guides along with other elements in the exhibition installation touch upon the common theme of entertainment in the early 20th century, emphasized throughout the renovated Streets. Look for details such as newspaper headlines or even the short films playing in the movie house where Charlie Chaplin and the exploits of magician Harry Houdini are featured.
Jackson says incorporating a thematic structure will help the Streets of Old Milwaukee stay current and continually refreshed. Themes will change every six months or so, with upcoming topics including public health, public safety and immigration.
Physical Interaction and Discovery
Apropos for the time period, the new installation has many interactive opportunities not connected to digital technology. An old-fashioned high wheel bicycle sits parked by a step, available for visitors to hop on to check out the view. Pick up the telephone in the general store and hear the old-fashioned party line, where a receiver hooks into any conversation already taking place. A manual water pump appeals to youths and old-timers alike as they take pleasure in the novelty of spilling water into a trough. Urban wildlife also is part of the scene — look for the hidden rat, cat and even a mechanical butterfly captured in a glass jar.
These elements come together in a way that successfully bridges the traditions of the Streets and the possibilities of new exhibition technology. It was one of the most challenging aspects of the project, described by Jackson as, “finding the right balance between new ideas and new techniques and preserving what people loved about the exhibit.” He added, “Most (exhibits) don’t last 50 years; it’s a real testament to the original designers.”
But what is Jackson’s favorite part? He cites the street car as his favorite major change, but on a subtler note, it is the lighting effects that create silhouettes of figures in windows. Most significant, he says, “My very favorite thing is when people discover things.” While the Streets of Old Milwaukee preserves the past in numerous ways, its current incarnation offers plenty of new surprises.
The Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibition is ongoing as part of the permanent collection at the Milwaukee Public Museum, 800 W. Wells St.
There is no doubt that the Middle East is a pivotal, mutable place. We hear about current events in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and other countries in the region daily.
This combination of contemporary importance and rich history makes the new permanent exhibition at the Milwaukee Public Museum all the more significant. The first MPM-produced, permanent exhibition in over ten years, “Crossroads of Civilization” is designed to give insights on politics, economics, religion, and daily life in the ancient Mediterranean through integration of old and new museum technology.
Carter Lupton, curator of ancient history, is a pivotal figure behind this exhibition, along with the numerous designers and artists involved in its creation. He says the alliterative themes of construction, communion, community, communication, commerce, and conflict provide a framework that draws together artifacts like vases, oil lamps, and sculptures, plus interactive elements like maps and diagrams.
The use of technology was especially important as a way to connect with contemporary audiences. The museum includes familiar pieces, such as the diorama of the Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu. The constructed model of a pylon temple shows workers on scaffolding adding decoration to a courtyard of monumental pillars and sculptures, while additional figures on the ground scurry in the course of construction. The model places us outside the temple while an accompanying digital display brings us inside to witness the wonder of ancient architecture in the most 21st century of ways.
One of the most impressive displays is a touchscreen timeline, stretched long upon an entry wall like an art history textbook come to life. Chronological developments in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome are highlighted with pictures and information.
While “Crossroads of Civilization” is permanent, its information is not, due to recent archeological tragedies that have prompted changes. Lupton says ISIS’ recent destruction of pre-Islamic sites throughout Iraq has prompted changes to the Assyrian section of the timeline, recognizing that certain temples and monasteries have been lost in March 2015.
What’s especially interesting about the museum’s timeline is it’s only the latest use of innovative design in its history. One early and significant example comes from a late-19th-century taxidermist named Carl Akeley. Lupton says Akeley would later become famous among museum aficionados for his work in New York and Chicago, but he got his start in Milwaukee, back when the museum opened in the 1880s.
Akeley’s breakout installation came in 1890, when he placed a taxidermied muskrat in a three-dimensional display with a painted background, bringing the scenario to life. It’s a practice Lupton says the museum has continued ever since.
“We’ve always done more to make the environments immersive, whether they’re dioramas or walk-through environments like the Streets of Old Milwaukee or the European Village or the Rainforest,” Lupton says.
Padi-Heru and Djed-Hor, two mummies who rank among the most ancient of the museum’s holdings, have also found new life in this exhibition. They were acquired in 1887 and have been the subject of special study by Lupton. New sculptural reconstructions give an idea of what these men looked like, in addition to information gleaned from hieroglyphics and artifacts.
Padi-Heru lived around 250 BCE and was part of the temple system in his profession as a priest. His job entailed caring for a cult statue by ensuring fresh food offerings and garments were supplied daily. “They were sort of the valets for the upkeep of these statues,” Lupton explains.
Djed-Hor’s background is a little less certain. He may have been involved with the process of mummification as a profession, but while many details of his life are unclear, his medical profile yielded some astonishing information. A CAT scan in 2011 revealed a gaping circular hole in his cranium. “This is something we did not know when we first CAT scanned him in 1986 because the quality of scans then was not three-dimensional; you could not recreate three-dimensional images from those, they were just individual slices,” says Lupton. “I think what we did is that we got one slice that was below that opening and one that was above it. So we pieced it all together.”
Another focal point from “Crossroads of Civilization” that similarly makes use of archaeological research and modern craft is the life-size representation of Egyptian king Tutankhamun in a chariot drawn by two white Arabian horses. Museum artist Craig Yanek took on the task of producing a figure that, based on latest research, shows the likeness of the famous pharaoh in a chariot replicating examples found in his tomb.
The museum’s detailed attention to the connections that cross civilizations and time becomes a way to understand our own commonalities with our ancestors, Lupton says. “The objects are things people made, and we learn from them what interested people, what was important to people, what they were good at. But you have to go beyond the object to the people who worked with that object, who made that object, conceived of it and created it.
“To me that is what archaeology is really about. It’s about people, it’s not about things.”
“Crossroads of Civilization” is an ongoing exhibition free with regular admission at the Milwaukee Public Museum, 800 W. Wells St. Visit mpm.edu for more information.
The Milwaukee Public Museum celebrates the life and art of Wisconsin artist Mary Nohl, who turned her Fox Point home into a fantastical wonderland of art and sculpture for most of her life until passing away in 2001. Nohl historian Debra Brehmer and married author/illustrator team Tina and Carson Kugler will give a series of presentations about the Kugler’s new picture-book biography In Mary’s Garden and Nohl’s work, now being conserved and cared for by Sheboygan’s John Michael Kohler Arts Center.
Visit mpm.edu for more details.
10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. March 21
Newaukee’s Young Professionals Week features dozens of events. Nut the biggest event of all is the Bubbler Awards, presented each year to 10 individuals who’ve positively impacting the community. This year, the awards are being held during a Milwaukee Public Museum lock-in, which gives attendees the opportunity to explore the museum after dark. In addition to the Bubbler Awards ceremony, the event includes short films screened by doc|UWM and three TED-style talks.
At the Milwaukee Public Museum, 800 W. Wells St. Tickets are $50, and are only available for attendees age 21 and older. For the full schedule, go to newaukee.com.
6 p.m. on Sat., April 19
At 7,000 years of age, beer is one of the oldest beverages ever created — so old, the Milwaukee Public Museum, 800 W. Wells St., thinks it should be in a museum. You’ll not likely hear any complaining about that at the 16th annual Food and Froth Fest. More than 200 beers will be available, along with food from local vendors. And festivalgoers will get a commemorative take-home glass. Tickets are $55 for members, $75 for non-members and $125 for VIP tickets. Attendees must be 21 or older. Visit mpm.edu or call 414-278-2728.
7-10 p.m., Sat., Feb. 22
Ever since Heidi Klum told him auf wiedersehen, former “Project Runway” contestant Timothy Westbrook has been in his Milwaukee studio preparing for his comeback fall fashion show. Titled “Paleontology of a Woman,” the show opens Sept. 21 at the Milwaukee Public Museum.
Westbrook, whose aesthetic vision draws inspiration from nature, says he considers himself a fiber artist more than a fashion designer – and an environmental artist first and foremost. He’s notorious for using repurposed and untraditional material – some of it might even be considered garbage – in creating his garments. This tendency will be prominently on display in “Paleontology of a Woman,” he says.
In fact, the 24 pieces in his Milwaukee Public Museum exhibit suggest alternative waste-management ideas. For example, some of his work is created from woven plastic bags. Westbrook hopes to demonstrate that plastic bags can be woven into vests and dresses of uniquely beautiful textures rather than tossed out to languish for centuries in landfills or add to the Texas-sized garbage island that’s created a dead zone in the Pacific Ocean.
Other materials included in the show are bed sheets, vintage wedding gowns, curtains, discarded fabrics and old wire hangers transformed into masks inspired by Broadway’s “The Lion King.” Some of the materials Westbrook uses are re-purposed fabrics from his time on “Project Runway.”
Westbrook’s fans say he has an uncanny ability to transform such “garbage” into eloquent, whimsical Victorian-styled dresses. Exhibit attendees can expect to see classy gowns, tailcoats and mosaic shoes decorated with aluminum hole-punched cans.
Other participants in “Paleontology of a Woman” are four jewelry designers, a clothing designer, a mask sculptor, and a composer providing dinosaur-themed music from “Fantasia” and “Jurassic Park.” Local drag queen Trixie Mattel acts both as a model and a makeup artist.
In addition to fashion, Westbrook’s exhibit will feature a mix of theater, performance art and environmental information. Guest speakers will talk about sustainability and conservation.
Westbrook says he and fellow “Project Runway” Milwaukee designer Miranda Levy (featured in WiG’s Aug. 22 issue) have put their infamous on-screen drama behind them. Not only have they mended their split seam, he says, but Levy plans to attend the show’s reception at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center. Westbrook hopes other celebrities, including Barbara Batts from “Fashion Star,” will be there to support him.
Westbrook moved to Milwaukee when he was invited to become one of the Pfister Hotel’s 2012 artists in-residence after graduating from Syracuse University. At 23, he was the youngest, first out-of-state and non-painting artist to be accepted into the program.
Westbrook says he found Milwaukee a more nurturing place to enter the fashion scene than New York City. Before heading off to season 12 of “Project Runway,” he set up a studio space in the Shops of Grand Avenue.
At “Timothy Westbrook Studio,” the artist takes his eco-friendly ethos so far that he works with the lights off. At the moment, he operates only two appliances that use electrical power – his computer and his iron. He says he’s looking into alternative energy sources to power them.
Westbrook’s primary instruments include old-fashion looms and his inseparable non-electric treadle sewing machine. He and his interns plan to transport his pieces to the museum by bicycle to underscore Wesbrook’s commitment to the show’s low-impact theme.
Westbrook’s show is meant to coincide with the kick-off event for the Fashion Week MKE Initiative, which starts Sept. 23.
On the Web
Go to www.fashionweekmke.com.
Who among us, at one time or another, hasn’t wanted to be a pirate – if only for the fashion statement?
But the closest any of us will come to sailing the Spanish Main is a trip to “Real Pirates,” the ongoing exhibition at the Milwaukee Public Museum that opened Dec. 14. Sponsored by National Geographic, the exhibit highlights the life and times of Capt. “Black Sam” Bellamy and the Wydah Gally – the pride of the pirate captain’s fleet. The Wydah sank along with two other ships off the shores of Cape Cod, Mass., in 1717 during a violent nor’easter that took the lives of all but two of the Wydah’s crew.
The wreck was discovered in 1984 by underwater explorer Barry Clifford. He used a chart of the wreck site that was created just days after the Wydah sank – a virtual treasure map. Clifford and his crew have unearthed 200,000 items, including a bell emblazoned with the ship’s name. With that discovery, the Wydah became the first clearly identified pirate vessel ever to be recovered.
About 200 artifacts from the ship are on display at the museum. Local actors dressed in pirate garb add an element of interpretative fun to the exhibit.
From slave ship to pirate ship
Among the exhibit’s most interesting revelations was the way that pirates undermined the West African slave trade that flourished during the 16th and 17th centuries. The pirates interfered by seizing the slave ships, including the Wydah.
Commissioned in 1715, the Wydah was owned by a consortium of British merchants and named after Ouidah, located in what is now Benin and considered one of Africa’s leading slave ports. At 102 feet long, the 300-ton slaver could travel 13 knots (about 15 mph) and carry more than 350 slaves. Most of them were men between the ages of 16 and 30 who were destined to work on the New World’s sugar and cotton plantations.
The ship, among the fastest sailing the seas, was heavily armed to counter revolts mounted by either the slaves or their families – a feature that made the ship especially attractive to pirates. The slaves who survived the months-long trans-Atlantic voyages would be traded for rum, precious metals, medicinal herbs and other New World goods.
The Wydah arrived at the tail end of what was known as the Golden Age of Pirates, a period of plundering Spanish gold shipments and providing a profitable living for sailors who found themselves out of work after the War of Spanish Succession. By the early 18th century, the British Crown had grown tired of dealing with the pirate scourge, making pirating a capital offense punishable by death. As pressure mounted on pirates in the Caribbean, many turned to the Atlantic shipping lanes for targets. Slave ships once again drew favor, with armadas of as many as 500 pirates under multiple captains interrupting the trade significantly, effectively eliminating many of the slave shipments to the New World.
The Wydah had completed only one slave mission before it was seized in February 1717 while navigating the windward passage between Cuba and Hispaniola (now Haiti). After a three-day chase Capt. Lawrence Prince surrendered the Wydah. The 28-year-old Bellamy was so pleased with his prize that he made the Wydah his flagship, giving his own vessel to Lawrence and the crew members who wished to remain with him.
There were no slaves aboard at the time. But if there had been, it was the pirates’ practice to either offer them freedom or a place on the crew. That was partly due to the pirates’ lack of legal access to slave markets and partly due to a fledgling form of democracy that became part of pirate culture.
Whereas navies and merchant ships of the day were homogenous collections of largely white males from specific countries, pirate crews offered significant diversity, according to the exhibit. Often headed by British captains, pirate crews included Native Americans, runaway slaves and seafarers from countries around the world. Bellamy’s crew included 11-year-old John King, captured with his mother during a pirate raid. He was made part of Bellamy’s crew.
There were also occasional female pirates, including Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who joined the crew of pirate “Calico Jack” Rackham dressed as men. They soon found themselves productive members of the crew. History reports that the pair were among the fiercest of pirates and were generally part of boarding parties during battles.
One thing that attracted people of all types to pirating was the extreme wealth that could be amassed even by the average pirate. Except for minor adjustments due to rank, treasure was generally shared equally among pirates, another revelation of the exhibit.
While all treasure was shared, pirates could keep whatever clothing and goods they took from the passengers. Artifacts found in the Wydah indicate pirates tended to be more “dandified” in their dress than first thought, attempting to duplicate in style their upper-class victims.
Part of any seized treasure was saved for the ship’s treasury, which was used to buy supplies for the voyages. The booty also underwrote the pirates’ rudimentary “workman’s compensation” program. Pirates who lost an arm or leg in battle were awarded an extra $800, but only after the broken limb was sawed off by the ship’s surgeon. If there was no ship’s surgeon, the task usually fell to the ship’s carpenter and surgery was completed without anesthetic or antibiotics. (That may have been what part of the rum was used for.)
Pirate John Brown (local actor Bethany Liesman) grabbed our ear on the dock next to the exhibit’s replica of the Wydah. As a former British navy sailor, Brown made £1 per month, then lost the job when a war with Spain ended.
“Ask me how much I make as a pirate,” Liesman said in her colorful cockney accent. “£1,000 per month.”
Pirate’s life for me
Liesman was one of several pirate characters prowling the exhibit, engaging us in conversation, asking us questions and all but pressing us into service. It was Capt. Bellamy (Zach Thomas Woods) who, spying our reporter’s notebook, took us to be spies of the Crown. We kept him from drawing his pistol by questioning him about the makeup of the pirate crew, the ratio of British captains and other issues.
We also were charmed by the Irish lilt of Anne Bonny (Alicia Rice), one of history’s fiercest female pirates and lover of “Calico Jack,” who was saved from the hangman’s noose, despite her murderous ways, because she was carrying Rackham’s child.
Bonny wondered why our grandsons, when asked, were not interested in becoming pirates. “Never met a boy who didn’t want to be a pirate,” she said.
I had to agree. Thanks to “Real Pirates,” I once again heard the rigging creak, the gulls cry and tasted the salt of the sea in the air. Apparently, there is still time to set sail for adventure.
Were there gay pirates?
Despite the occasional homoerotic overtones surrounding pirates, the literature is inconclusive when it comes to the prevalence of same-sex relationships on the high seas. Nonetheless, here are some anecdotes that provide a gay angle:
• Johnny Depp may have opened the closet door a bit on pirates with his portrayal of Capt. Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, much to the initial dismay of Disney executives charged with producing the films. Depp claimed to have patterned his character after Rolling Stones lead guitarist Keith Richards, which raises an entirely different set of questions.
• Traditional seafarers’ ballads contain no mention of the subject, but contemporary British singer Cosmo Jarvis tackled the theme in his song “Gay Pirates.” You can watch it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dysG12QCdTA.
• There are no known members of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team who are gay, but this past fall Kevin McClatchy, board chairman of the McClatchy Newspapers chain, came out. McClatchy owned the baseball franchise 1996-2007 and cited homophobic language in the sport for causing him to remain closeted.
• And even if you can’t be a gay pirate, you can enjoy a cool drink of the same name, courtesy of the Drinks Mixer website. Blend 1 oz. Bacardi 151 proof rum with 1 oz. apricot liqueur, 1 oz. Malibu cocoanut rum, 3 oz. of pineapple juice and a splash of lemon juice. But make sure you’re sailing calm seas before imbibing, since this one is sure to shiver your timbers.