Milwaukee a major museum destination

Milwaukee Art Museum_Exterior from North.jpg
The distinctive architecture of the Milwaukee Art Museum, located on the shore of Lake Michigan.

On most vacations, museums are held in reserve as rainy day destinations.

When planning a visit to Milwaukee, though, museums should be at the top of the list no matter what the weather.

With the combination of the spectacular architecture of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the lakefront setting of Discovery World, the innovative exhibits at the Milwaukee Public Museum and the kid-friendy Betty Brinn Children's Museum, there might not be a better museum city in the Midwest.

Our personal favorite, year after year, is the Milwaukee Public Museum , in particular, its Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit. In this exhibit, it is forever early evening of a day 100 years ago, and visitors stroll the wooden plank sidewalks and cobble-stone streets (made from bricks actually salvaged from a Milwaukee street), window-shopping, peeking into places of business and stopping for a treat at the candy shop.

When this faithful re-creation of old Milwaukee opened in 1965, it was something new in museums: a walk-through experience inviting visitors to become part of the exhibit. The exhibit has barely been tweaked since then, but it remains popular with visitors of all ages.


Adjacent to the Streets of Old Milwaukee, you'll find the equally fascinating European Village, which features representative dwellings, costumes and artifacts from 33 European cultures. The village is built to represent the years of 1875 to 1925 — the period during which many members of these ethnic groups settled in Milwaukee.

The wonders of the Milwaukee Public Museum don't stop there. Visitors can view an amazing buffalo hunt diorama, a rain forest re-created with the help of the National Museum of Costa Rica, a 36-foot long humpback whale skeleton, a rather gruesome (and realistic) dinosaur exhibit, a Latin American village, a section devoted to the Pacific Islands and an IMAX theater. Not worn out yet? Don't worry, there's much more to see than we can list here.

But you'll also need time to visit Milwaukee's nearby Lake Michigan shore, where the eye-catching Milwaukee Art Museum resides. Actually, the architecture of the MAM is impossible to miss and is by itself as impressive as the works of art inside. The original 1957 structure was designed by Finnish master Eero Saarinen as the Milwaukee County War Memorial. The most recent section, the Quadracci Pavilion, was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and opened in 2001.

The wing-like brise soleil of the Calatrava building are now as much a symbol of Milwaukee as machine shops were a century ago. For anyone who thinks Milwaukee is strictly a beer-and-brats culture, the Milwaukee Art Museum is a bracing encounter. The 341,000-square-foot museum holds 30,000 pieces, as well as rotating exhibits. Of course, this being Milwaukee, which was once known as the "German Athens," the museum has an especially strong collection of German expressionism. There is also a large collection of works by Georgia O'Keeffe, who was born in Wisconsin.

Outside the museum, it's impossible to miss the tasteful way in which Milwaukee has used much of its Lake Michigan shoreline to locate parks, recreation areas and public institutions. The latest addition to that collection is Discovery World , situated right at the water at what is now known as Pier Wisconsin. Innovation, technology, exploration, the environment — Discovery World melds nature and science. Among the most popular exhibits is "Les Paul's House of Sound," which allows visitors to explore the ways in which the Wisconsin-born guitarist changed the way we play and listen to music.

Discovery World also has its own sailing vessel, the Denis Sullivan, freshwater and saltwater aquariums and multiple hands-on experiences for all ages.

Last but not least, the nearby Betty Brinn Children's Museum has been rated by Parents magazine as one of the 10 best in the country. Its latest exhibit is "Hands-On Harley-Davidson."

So, looking at a rainy weekend forecast? Pack up the family and head to Milwaukee's first-class museums.


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