Milwaukee Public Museum

10 Weird Facts About the Milwaukee Public Museum

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

Creepy walking grandma in the Streets of Old Milwaukee

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

Bison hunt diorama at the Milwaukee Public Museum
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.

The lion that lived on the roof of the Milwaukee Public Museum

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

Milwaukee Public Museum taxidermist Wendy Christensen works on Samson the gorilla

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

Taxidermist Carl Akeley created the muskrats, the world's first habitat diorama, in 1890 at the Milwaukee Public Museum

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
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

Aztalan princess burial on display at the Milwaukee Public Museum

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

Museum exhibit designer Thomas Shea
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

Milwaukee Public Museum mammoth bones

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.

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Demitra Hahnfeld
Demitra Hahnfeld
7 years ago

The Belle Gunness house story is totally unfounded…as interesting as it would be, it is simply not true. My grandfather was the curator at the MPM & the head of the European Village Exhibit project. All of the homes were manufactured, many of which he had a hand in not only planning, but building. I hate to be one to disappoint! But there you have it.

8 years ago

I used to work here. One of the old VP’s is said to haunt the upper floor by him. He was killed in a car accident on the way to the museum Christmas party years ago, and now the smell of cigars lingers :).

2 years ago

I was a very naughty girl and went into an exhibit as a kid. It set off loud alarms and guards came running from everywhere. I learned never to do that again.

Kristen Meier
5 years ago

When I was in grade school, I was lucky enough to spend the night at the museum. While on a tour, we were told that in a maritime exhibit the tops of the pier pilings were painted to look like bird droppings to keep people from climbing on them. This was years ago and I was young at the time, so I don’t even remember which exhibit it was, but this has always stuck with me. I have to say, though, that The Streets of Old Milwaukee has always been my favorite! I hope they don’t make too many changes… Read more »

6 years ago

The annex over which Milwaukee Public Library’s green roof is found today was not built until 1957. Simba left the Library Museum building in 1929. He had lived on the roof above the temporary 5th floor above the 1912 addition, but preferred spending most of his time among the museum staff on the 4th floor.

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7 years ago

How about the fact that the elephant depicted in the African Savanna exhibit on the museum’s third floor:*800/b99506849z.1_20150525193340_000_gckb809p.1-0.jpg was actually hunted down and killed back in the late 1800s to early 1900s, I can’t recall the exact year, but it was for the purpose of being used as a museum display. In the old museum which was located directly across the street from the current location in the older portion of the central library building, the elephant stood on a platform that was open on all sides, visitors and school groups were able to gather around and touch it.… Read more »

7 years ago

The museum might have the oldest automobile ever made.

8 years ago

Will this be the same integration of cutting-edge technology that I see in most museums I visit now which are destroyed within microseconds by over-enthusiastic kids? They’ve yet to invent a button or touch screen that can withstand a fervent 3 year old intent on maximising their sensory inputs.

8 years ago

Throughout the Museum a Leopard (?) hunts it prey. It has it’s prey captured (some sort of deer, a gazelle maybe?) at the end. We always noticed this by the escalators. This is the story my mother always told me when I was a kid. It’s there, lurking in the trees! 😉

8 years ago

The rattlesnake button is no longer there. It was removed and covered up with a patch. I was super disappointed when I returned to Milwaukee several years ago with my children and wanted to show it to them.

8 years ago

In the Old Streets of Mke from the balcony in front of the Dr & photographers offices, you can see a red bedroom across the street with a hat in the window. The hat was originally owned by a former Mke mayor who frequented houses of ill repute. Sorry, I can’t remember the name of the mayor.