The Milwaukee Public Museum has a long history of creating innovative and immersive exhibits. The earliest habitat dioramas were created here, and The Streets of Old Milwaukee transport you directly into the past.
Opened in 1965, The Streets of Old Milwaukee was designed by artist Edward Green to be more than just an exhibit. You wander through a neighborhood on a fall evening, peering through windows into incredibly realistic scenes of life at the turn of the century. There are homes and shops, all filled with authentic items, people and pets. Sure, some of the cats and dogs are looking a bit rough, but it’s all part of the charm (and eeriness) of the experience.
But there is a lot more quirkiness, creepiness and mystery in Milwaukee’s legendary museum if you know where to look. Here are some strange and interesting facts about the museum and its exhibits to think about next time you visit.
The Creepy Granny Takes a lot of Abuse
In The Streets of Old Milwaukee lurks a mannequin of a grandma rocking on her porch that has a tendency to strike fear into the hearts of all who encounter her. After years of abuse and outright assault, Grandma had to be replaced in 1987. These days, she even has her own Twitter account.
But she’s still just as creepy.
Finding the Snake Button
Photo by John December/Creative Commons
The Indian Crow Bison Hunt, which was the largest open diorama in the world when it opened in 1966, contains a tiny secret whose discovery has become a quintessential part of the Milwaukee experience. A hidden button makes the rattlesnake in the diorama shake it’s tail.
Do you know where the snake button is?
House That Belonged to a Victim of Belle Gunness?
European Village at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Photo by John December/Creative Commons
Cult contributor J. Nathan Couch tells me that one of the houses in the European Village allegedly belonged to a victim of turn-of-the-century serial killer Belle Gunness.
After the mysterious deaths of her first two husbands, the “Black Widow” began placing ads in newspapers looking for a new husband. Many men responded, a number of them from Wisconsin. Gunness corresponded with potential suitors by mail, beckoning them to visit her on her farm in La Porte, Indiana and “come prepared to stay forever.”
The men arrived on her farm with their life savings…and then vanished. The Mistress of Murder Farm was poisoning them, butchering them and feeding them to her hogs.
Did one of the houses in the European Village once belong to a victim of serial killer Belle Gunness? And if so, which one?
A Lion Once Lived on the Roof
Milwaukee Public Museum director Dr. Sam Barrett, leading an expedition to Africa in 1928, purchased Simba from a group of Massai people who had found the lion cub wandering alone after a grass fire. He was brought back to Milwaukee, where he spent some time living in the museum’s taxidermy studio until a special structure was built for him on the roof.
After chipping a tooth chewing on his bowling ball, Simba was transferred to the Washington Park Zoo, the precursor to the Milwaukee Public Zoo, where he lived out the rest of his long life. When he finally died, Simba was given a permanent home in one of the museum’s dioramas.
During Simba’s time the museum shared a building with the library. Today, the roof of Central Library where he once lived is a green roof, with tours happening on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Samson Taxidermy is a Re-Creation
Featured in a recent issue of National Geographic, the mount of Milwaukee’s famous gorilla Samson is a re-creation by the museum’s resident taxidermist Wendy Christensen. After 25 years in a freezer at the zoo, Samson’s skin was too damaged to mount. So Christensen used his plaster death mask and photos to bring him back to life using synthetic materials, such as fur provided by National Fiber Technology, the company that supplies wookie fur for Star Wars.
When she took Samson to the World Taxidermy Championships in 2009, Christensen won several awards for her work, including Best of Show and Best in World, Re-Creation.
The Samson re-creation, as well as his articulated skeleton, are on display in the museum’s Victorian-style Sense of Wonder natural history exhibit.
Carl Akeley’s Muskrat Cabinet
Legendary taxidermist Carl Akeley pioneered the art of modern taxidermy during his time working at the Milwaukee Public Museum, where he created the world’s first habitat-style diorama in 1890 – the muskrat cabinet by the bathrooms on the second floor. His work inspired museum exhibit designers around the world, and it became known as “the Milwaukee style.”
Streets of Old Milwaukee Inspired House on the Rock
Streets of Yesterday at House on the Rock. Photo: Alexis Fam/Creative Commons
Deep within the bizarre caverns of House on the Rock you can walk through the Streets of Yesterday, a dark and surreal re-creation of a street in the 19th century. Streets of Yesterday made its debut in 1971, inspired by the techniques devised for The Streets of Old Milwaukee.
Mound Builder Princess Was Once on Display
The remains of what is believed to have been a princess of the ancient and mysterious Mound Builders were unearthed by Sam Barrett during excavations of Aztalan. She is one of only a few burials discovered in what was once a thriving Northern outpost for the Middle Mississippian people.
Unlike any other remains found in Wisconsin, these were adorned in shells from as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.
The princess of Aztalan was on display at the museum until 1973, when she was removed due to controversy over the disturbance of Native American burials.
One Guy Was Used for 4 Different Mannequins
Milwaukee Public Museum exhibit designer Thomas Shea.
In a video on the creation of the Crossroads of Civilization exhibit, designer Thomas Shea says he’s undergone a full body cast four times over the years for the creation of various people around the museum.
Most recently, Shea was cast for the Persian archer. He now battles beside his brother, who was cast for the Greek hoplite in the early 90s.
Where else can you find him?
Also, the museum handyman was the model for Tutankhamun’s ear.
Herb Was Butchered By Humans 14,500 Years Ago
It’s a strange feeling to look at the bones of an animal that was eaten by humans 14,500 years ago. Herb, a hebior mammoth, was found in 1979 by a farmer in Kenosha County, less than 30 miles from the museum.
Butchering marks on the bones indicate that people were present in North America 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.
There is no much history inside the walls of the Milwaukee Public Museum. Are there more weird facts that should have been included? Tell me about it in the comments below.