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Museum-lovers’ guide to Milwaukee

by on October 18, 2013

Milwaukee is more than cheese. Everyone knows that Milwaukee brought us Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, countless breweries and cheeseheads. It’s true, we love our tailgating culture, but Milwaukee also has world class museums, and not just your garden-variety art galleries. The barons of this proud industrial town funneled a large portion of their fortunes into “The Arts”. Milwaukee has a long history of supporting and appreciating their artists.  When Santiago Calatrava created the internationally acclaimed Quadracci Pavilion and Reiman Bridge to the Milwaukee Art Museum, he exposed our secret: Milwaukee is a city full of art aficionados!

Harley Davidson Museum (Photo credit: Jessica Reid)

Spending the day at the Harley Davidson Museum  will thrill the most jaded, leather-clad biker. But besides the coolness factor, you will be surprised by how much you will learn! From the story of three friends who started building bikes in 1903 to the brand’s role in pop culture, the Great Depression and World War II, the museum is fascinating.  A new exhibit pays tribute to the 15,000 people who died during the tragic 2011 tsunami. It features the remains of a bike that travelled 4000 miles from Japan to a beach in British Columbia. The museum also has an excellent cafe and restaurant with more memorabilia and motorcycle parts adorning the walls and tables. All this and one of the best (albeit expensive) museum gift shops in the world.

Pabst Mansion (Photo credit: Pabst Mansion)

Let’s say you love architecture and your date loves beer.  Why not compromise and spend the day touring the Pabst Mansion followed by a picnic with some cans of PBR? This would make beer baron Captain Frederick Pabst a very happy man.  The Captain’s home is the only Gilded Age mansion left on Milwaukee’s Grand Avenue. If you can’t get enough beer, you might also consider sleeping at the new Brewhouse Inn and Suites, a Neo-Victorian 90 room hotel built around the original brew kettles at the old Pabst Brewery Property.

Milwaukee Art Museum (Photo credit: Jessica Reid)

People distracted by the architecture of the Milwaukee Art Museum should be reminded that it also art in it.  The buildings, including the Quadracci Pavilion designed by Santiago Calatrava, are so magnificent that it gives the art competition for your attention. The Milwaukee Art Museum has quietly collected 25,000 works of art for over 125 years with large endowments from the philanthropic families of Milwaukee.  The Museum’s collections of German Expressionist prints and the American Decorative Arts are world-class, but the entire collection spans the history of art from the Antiquities to up-and-coming living artists. The Milwaukee Art Museum is definitely not a leave-the-kids-at-home museum; be sure to take advantage of the free art supplies and activities for kids.

Milwaukee Public Museum (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Head over to the  Milwaukee Public Museum for a natural history and science fix.  You can  enter a live butterfly garden, visit the planetarium, follow the journeys of a modern day paleontologist, or catch an IMAX show, surprising yourself by learning more about bugs than you ever believed you’d want to. For those who grew up in Milwaukee, the modern exhibits pale in comparison to the Streets of Old Milwaukee.  Since 1965, school groups have experienced life in the turn-of-the-century city.  Have a blast while strolling through the past with genuine embroidery, dishes and signage from the 1800s that will delight any modern Etsy-obsessed museum goer.

Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum (Photo credit: Villa Terrace)

Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum is a Northern Italian Renaissance-style villa that overlooks Lake Michigan. Built in 1923 by architect David Adler, it is one of the most beautiful museums imaginable. Despite the old school flavor, they do have the occasional edgy art show. It is the perfect place to cheer up a friend, appreciate an aunt or take memorable family photos.  Or, maybe propose… Don’t miss the fish pond or the two secret gardens.

Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory  (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I know, I know! It’s not a museum, but hear my case. This is one of the best cheap dates in Milwaukee.  For less than a can of beer, you can experience the desert, tropical and floral shows in climate-controlled bee-hive shaped domes.  It’s the only conodial (non-geodesic) glass house in the world!  Birds from the rainforest keep the plants and trees happy in the tropical dome. The Domes, as they are locally known, were remodeled in 2008.   They host art shows, concerts and evening light shows.  The Domes are perfect for Mother’s or Father’s day and holiday flower shows, but the flowers are beautiful all year.

The Pfister Hotel Artist in Residence  (Photo credit: Pfister Hotel)

How does a hotel built in 1893 become an art destination? The Pfister Hotel has a large Victorian art collection, architecture tours, time capsule and most importantly an Artist-in-Residence program. An artist works on the hotel’s main floor, behind glass walls, for 30 hours a week. Their work is on display and for sale, but each he/she creates a legacy piece that goes on permanent display at the hotel. Last year’s artist, Timothy Westbrook, went on to achieve fame and success on Project Runway!  It’s incredible to see the hotel supporting contemporary artists alongside their priceless Victorian art collection. But that’s not all! The Pfister Narrator is a stipend position for an aspiring writer. They interview hotel guests to contribute to the Pfister Hotel’s blog.

Discovery Museum (Photo credit: Jessica Reid)

What do you say to fresh and salt-water aquariums, a television studio and a techno jungle? You can’t go wrong with Discovery World, because it’s five museums in one. 120,000 square feet of interactive experiences featuring Wisconsin manufacturing companies like Briggs & Stratton, Johnson Controls and Rockwell. Kids love climbing into the human hamster wheel, while grown-ups can get lost in the history of the electric guitar or the future of electric cars.

Plus, the museum doubles as the pier for for the Sailing Vessel Dennis Sullivan, the world’s only re-creation of a Great Lakes 19th century three-masted schooner.  It’s fun to watch the crew working on the vessel from the windows of the museum.

Charles Allis Museum (Photo credit: Milwaukee Film Classics)

Love classic movies?  See a 16mm, reel-to-reel film from the 30’s and 40’s with a film historian while sipping wine!  And–shocker–the movie tickets are only $7!  Dale Kuntz, President of Milwaukee Film Classics, shows films from his private collection at the Charles Allis Museum, every other Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. If you have time, tour the venue beforehand. The Allis home is a Tudor-style mansion built by Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler.

Grohmann Museum (Photo credit: Grohmann Museum)

On your break from work, may I suggest looking at art about work? The Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Grohmann Museum has the largest art collection dedicated to the evolution of human work in the world.  Sound laborious?  It’s surprisingly entertaining. From the Dutch masters to Spanish modern paintings to 9 foot bronze sculptures on the living green roof, the Grohmann Museum will make you feel empowered. The hundreds of paintings showing people toiling through the ages just might give you a new appreciation for your modern desk job!

Splash Studio in The Historic Third Ward (Photo credit: Splash Studio)

Ready to invest?  The Historic Third Ward is the place to find local working artists and over 25 art galleries.  The best art scene in the neighborhood can be found at Splash Studio, a painting bar where the art is made by you… while drinking.  That’s right, it’s a full service bar and an art studio.  Aprons, easels, canvases, paint and brushes are all provided with a flat studio fee.

Oh Milwaukee, you know how to get the creative juices flowing!

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