Wednesday, May 22, 2024
Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Milwaukee Press Club 'Excellence in Wisconsin Journalism' 2020 & 2021 Award Winners

Milwaukee Public Museum Admits It Can’t Move Murals; Exhibit Designer Wants Historic Artworks Preserved


A former Milwaukee Public Museum exhibit designer, Emilio Bras, is sounding the alarm about what could happen to the museum’s artwork and historic exhibits if the museum moves to a new $240 million building.

In a recent interview about the new museum project, the museum’s earned media director, Madeline Anderson, admitted, referring to the iconic Streets of Old Milwaukee and European Village exhibits: “These exhibits, these buildings and other murals, those are painted on or built into this structure. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t just bring them over to the new building.”

“Which murals, specifically?” we asked. The museum officials won’t say. Meanwhile, the history and arts communities remain silent. Historian John Gurda even wrote a recent column favorable to the project while ruminating about tossing out history (and art), saying, “What to keep and what to toss? How much of our earlier lives is worth preserving, and how much is just dead weight?”

Emilio bras
Emilio bras

In an interview with Wisconsin Right Now, Bras confirmed that it won’t be possible to fully move the Streets of Old Milwaukee and European Village. “You would have to destroy it, take a hammer to it,” he said.

As a designer who worked on Milwaukee Public Museum exhibits for decades before retiring last year, this troubles him deeply. The current Milwaukee Public Museum “is the perfect example of the creativity of individuals,” Bras said.

The Streets of Old Milwaukee is a historic exhibit; it was designed by an artist named Edward Green in 1965. According to the museum, it was “one of the first walk-through dioramas in the world.” We previously interviewed the granddaughters of the Serbian immigrant who helped painstakingly curate the adjacent European Village. There are petitions to save both.

Bras is also deeply concerned about the fate of the many murals referenced by Anderson.

Milwaukee public museum exhibit

Anyone who has been to the Milwaukee Public Museum has felt the pull of the murals; the intricate paintings pull you into the scenery.

According to Bras, the murals, which are prominently displayed throughout the current museum, are “important because they show a period of art that was just part of the history of the nation. An art museum is not going to see them as works of art, but they are a work of art. The artists who created those pieces are no longer around, so if you destroy them, you won’t be able to get something like it. It’s not going to be the same. You want to protect them.”

Milwaukee public museum exhibit

After interviewing Bras, Wisconsin Right Now asked Anderson and the museum’s public relations firm, Mueller Communications, for a list of the artwork in the current museum that can’t be moved to the new one. We also asked for the names of the painters and what will happen to the art. Specifically, will it be destroyed?

We asked:

“Can you please provide us with a list of the artworks and murals in the current museum and by which artists and which ones the museum will be able to move and which will be destroyed or just left behind in the old/current building? For example, there are many beautiful paintings that form the backdrops of exhibits and dioramas. I am trying to trace the works of art and artists in the current building. Madeline told Fox 6 that many can’t be brought over, and we would like a list.”

We Have Not Received a Response.

With the museum officials silent on the art, we turned to historical archives and biographies to trace the artists who have worked in the Milwaukee Public Museum over the years.

One artist who left his legacy on the museum was Robert Frankowiak. “In 35 years with the museum, Bob painted over 47 murals and diorama backgrounds depicting wildlife ecology of Africa, Central America and North America, traveling extensively to collect specimens and painting afield. He rose from staff artist to become the museum’s art director in 1984,” his 2017 obituary reads. He retired in 1990.

He worked under renowned wildlife artist Owen Gromme for a time.

Another artist who was involved in the museum is Sylvester J. Sowinski. A biography for Sowinski demonstrates the deep historical roots in the museum’s artwork. See a photo of Sowinski working on museum artwork here.

He is described by Wisconsin as a “Milwaukee artist.”

That website says that “after service in World War Two, Sowinski trained at the Wisconsin Academy of Art and the Layton School of Art before working as an independent commercial artist and illustrator, from 1948 to 1963.”

“In the latter year, he was appointed chief sculptor of the Milwaukee Public Museum, where he created 47 human figures which populate the Masai lion hunt, Eskimo igloo group, European Village, and other exhibits,” the bio says.

“He also painted backgrounds in dioramas and murals. His work, which shows the influence of Frederic Remington and N.C. Wyeth, among others, can also be found in private and public collections, the Natural History Museum in Racine, Wis., and the Manitowoc Maritime Museum.”

Milwaukee public museum exhibit

Although museum officials told Milwaukee County that they would have new exhibit story lines by 2020, they tell Wisconsin Right Now that they don’t know yet which exhibits will be in the new facility. Construction is planned for December 2023, even though the project is $107 million short in private donations.

Bras worked for 34 years in the Milwaukee Public Museum’s exhibit department as a designer, with skills in object installation, mount-making and lighting design. According to his LinkedIn page, before retiring in 2022, he “participated in over 80 different theme exhibit installations.”

“You will have to do it new; you would have to rebuild it,” he said of the Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit. “You can’t move it as you have it now here. It was built by carpenters; there’s wood, nails and glue. You can’t lift it up and carry it with you. You would have to destroy it; take a hammer to it. You would have to do an interpretation of it.”

Milwaukee public museum exhibit

As for the historic dioramas? “You can remove the foreground; you can take out the animals; there are pegs in their feet. Just lift them straight up. The plant material and rocks are all fake. You can remove and bring that with you. You can recreate a diorama,” Bras said.

But that’s not true of other exhibits and murals.

“Our museum brought the world to Milwaukee. We brought Africa, we brought China, we brought Japan to them – different parts of the world to them. All of a sudden, you’re going to take this away,” Bras said.

He said that other exhibits can’t be moved without “destroying or moving a part of it. Those shells are bigger than a freight elevator; they would have to cut a hole in the side of the building to cut those shells out. They are several layers of cement.”

Milwaukee public museum exhibit

He said some museums have been able to move exhibits by cutting them and taking “them out in pieces. They hire an expert to fix the scene and match the paint.”

A New Style of Exhibit Is Born in Milwaukee

According to Bras, a taxidermist named Carl Akeley “created the whole idea” of the dioramas in the current museum. Previously, animals “were just in glass cases with very little explanation and names,” he said. Akely created the idea of putting animals in their natural environments “to show how they live,” he said.

Carl akely
Carl akely

The Field Museum website confirms that Akely is “widely considered the Father of Modern Taxidermy.” Born on a farm in New York, he worked for various museums throughout his career.

In 1886, Akeley started working for the Milwaukee Public Museum, “first as a contractor, then as staff taxidermist,” Field Museum reports. “During this period, Akeley was an early adopter of a manikin method comprising a wooden armature bulked out with wire mesh to form the animal’s contours.”

The article notes: “In 1890, he produced a habitat diorama of muskrat life, which remains a landmark in the history of dioramas. He left the MPM in 1892 to pursue contract work, and made another taxidermic splash with three broncos for the Smithsonian’s exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.”

According to Britannica, Akely “developed the taxidermic method for mounting museum displays to show animals in their natural surroundings.”

Bras says that the “start of the dioramas” occurred in Milwaukee. The concept soon spread to other museums.

Just as influential: the paintings historically attached to the museum.

According to Bras, “many of the German painters started coming and working at the museum.”

The Rich History of Art at the Milwaukee Public Museum

Many of the well-known artists who painted for the museum did so well before the 1960s when the current museum was built. Thus, it’s not clear which of their paintings would be destroyed, if any, and which murals Anderson was talking about exactly.

Bras believes some of the paintings might be easily moved; however, the fact remains that the museum is not providing a full accounting to the public, and the rest of the media aren’t asking.

The museum was officially chartered in 1882, but its “existence can be traced back to 1851 to the founding of the German-English Academy in Milwaukee,” the museum’s website says. The current building was completed in 1962.

According to a column by historian John Gurda in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “MPM moved to 800 W. Wells, one collection at a time, between 1962 and 1967.”

There is no question that the Milwaukee Public Museum has a storied legacy of historic art, much of it deriving from the era when Milwaukee was the hub of German and Austrian panoramic painting styles.

Milwaukee public museum exhibit

“A lot of these were Germans and came to Milwaukee. They were artists,” said Bras, who added that paintings in the federal courthouse in Milwaukee were made by some of the same artists.

The museum does provide some glimpses into the dioramas and artwork on its website.

Some of the murals date to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, according to the museum’s website.

“One of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal administration policies, the Works Progress Administration, offered jobs to keep people employed during the Great Depression,” the museum’s website says.

“At the Milwaukee Public Museum, Director Samuel A. Barrett wanted to keep his staff employed, so he designated space for murals throughout the Museum to depict different exhibits and periods in world history.”

Milwaukee public museum exhibit

According to the museum, the Plains Indian Hunt “was the creation of taxidermist Walter C. Pelzer, a member of the Museum staff from 1932-1972. The inspiration for this exhibit came when a large bull bison was obtained by the museum. This exhibit opened in 1966 and would become the largest one known in the world at this time.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, a Viennese panorama painter, George Peter, created state-of-the-art dioramas for the Milwaukee Public Museum. The encyclopedia reports that “between 1885 and 1890, Milwaukee was a center for panoramic painting in America.”

Another biography says Peter “was a panorama painter with a specialty in painting animals. He pursued a long career with the Milwaukee Public Museum creating numerous backdrops for large dioramas.”

Milwaukee public museum exhibit

Milwaukee also reports on “George Peter, who created the dioramas in Milwaukee’s Public Museum.”

The museum’s first Curator of Anthropology, Samuel A. Barrett, was also responsible for life-sized dioramas, according to the museum’s website.

“Along with MPM artist George Peter, Barrett consulted with local people to create life-sized dioramas, hoping to achieve the highest degree of accuracy in his depiction of Kwakiutl life before the widespread arrival of European settlers,” the website says.

“Though some of these dioramas have undergone renovation since they were installed, the MPM still houses most of these early life group displays.”

The museum’s website labels the painting below Barrett’s “Northwest Coast Diorama at the Milwaukee Public Museum.”

Milwaukee public museum exhibit

Myron Nutting, a Paris-educated painter, painted murals for the Milwaukee Public Museum in the early 1930s. In 1936, Nutting “painted murals of the Athenian Acropolis and an ancient Egyptian mummification scene for the Milwaukee Public Museum.”

According to Urban Milwaukee, panorama paintings “would prove to be a short-lived trend, nearly disappearing by the 1890s (though the style had an impact on the dioramas devised by artisans at the Milwaukee Public Museum, which in turn influenced other natural history museums).”

Bras says of the collections, “All of these objects are precious and very valuable. Moving the collection – it’s not like you can just throw stuff in boxes and carry it across the street.”

He said that the museum has continually worked to update and evolve its exhibits. He said that the Streets of Old Milwaukee is constructed in part from doors that were salvaged from old houses that were being torn down in the city, and the real doors from the front entrance of the Pfister Hotel are in the museum.

“They wanted to represent Milwaukee at the turn of the century; when you walk through the streets it goes from gas to electricity,” Bras said.

Wisconsin Right Now, with a project-specific grant from No Better Friend Corp., Kevin Nicholson’s non-profit organization, is investigating the Milwaukee County Museum’s rhetoric, cost estimates, and plans for a new museum.

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Prosecutors Rest Their Case Against Trump in Hush Money Trial

State prosecutors rested their case against former President Donald Trump on Monday, capping off four weeks of testimony from 20 witnesses.

The first-ever trial of a former President was one step closer to a conclusion after prosecutors concluded their case Monday. Next up: Trump's attorneys will get a chance to present their defense. The case centered around Trump's alleged sexual encounter with an adult film actress in 2006 and a $130,000 payment to her in 2016 to keep her quiet ahead of the 2016 election. Trump has pleaded not guilty and denied the encounter happened.

Prosecutors allege that Trump covered up the payment to Stormy Daniels and another hush money payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal ahead of the election and covered them up as legal payments.

Trump, 77, is the first former U.S. president to be charged with a felony.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records related to money paid to Daniels and McDougal. Bragg has alleged Trump broke New York law when he falsified business records with the intent to commit or conceal another crime.

Prosecutors allege Trump falsified internal records kept by his company, hiding the true nature of payments that involve Daniels ($130,000), McDougal ($150,000), and Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen ($420,000). Prosecutors allege the money was logged as legal expenses, not reimbursements. Both Cohen and Daniels testified during the trial.

Daniels detailed the alleged 2006 sexual encounter and testified she "blacked out." She also said Trump didn't wear a condom. Defense attorneys asked for a mistrial after that testimony, which they argued was prejudicial.

Judge Juan Merchan denied that motion and repeatedly fined Trump for his comments and social media activity outside of the courtroom. Merchan ordered Trump to pay a total of $10,000 for violations of the gag order.

The gag order remains in place. Trump, the nation's 45th president, is prohibited from making or directing others to make public statements about the jurors, witnesses, attorneys, court staff, district attorney staff and family members of staff.

It is not clear if Trump plans to take the stand in his own defense. He previously said he would take the stand if necessary.

Under New York state law, falsifying business records in the first degree is a Class E felony that carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison.

In late March, Trump said that he wasn't worried about a conviction when asked if he thought a conviction could hurt his chances of returning to the White House.

"It could also make me more popular because the people know it's a scam," he said. "It's a Biden trial, there is no trial, there's a Biden trial."

Whatever happens during the trial, Trump will be protected by the U.S. Secret Service.

Even if convicted and sentenced to jail, Trump could continue his campaign to retake the White House.

"The Constitution does not bar felons from serving as President," said Richard Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Trump could not pardon himself from any state charges, Hasen said.

Federal Scholarship Program Under Fire For Alleged Bias Against Conservatives

Lawmakers have threatened to revoke the appropriations for a federally-funded scholarship program that an audit found favors liberally leaning students over conservatives by a ratio of 10 to 1.

The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation was established in the 1970s to award scholarships to students who “demonstrate outstanding potential for and who plan to pursue a career in public service.”

An audit of those scholarships performed by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, though, reported strong liberal bias at the taxpayer-funded foundation.

“While this role suggests these programs should include scholars who reflect a breadth of views, values, and interests, their participants instead display a stark ideological tilt,” AEI said in its report.

The foundation does have members of both parties on its board, including U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, and U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kans.

Notably, President Joe Biden's Education Secretary Miguel Cardona also sits on the board.

House Republican lawmakers on leadership on the relevant committees sent a letter to foundation Executive Secretary Terry Babcock-Lumish demanding answers.

“Between 2021 and 2023, the Truman Foundation selected 182 Truman winners,” the letter said. “Yet, despite the Truman Foundation’s claims that it ‘supports scholars from a wide range of perspectives, interests, and geographic areas,’ just six recipients espoused interest in a cause traditionally considered conservative-leaning.

“Not a single winner professed interest in causes such as protecting the rights of the unborn or defending the Second Amendment,” the letter continued. “By contrast, the Foundation selected at least 74 winners professing interest in a progressive cause.”

The foundation awards about 60 scholarships every year.

“As a publicly funded award charged with preparing the civic leaders of tomorrow, the Truman Scholarship should, at a bare minimum, be reflective of the country’s breadth of values, viewpoints, and interests,” the letter said. “The Truman Foundation requested approximately $3 million in appropriations for the upcoming fiscal year. However, if the Truman Scholarship functions as a career booster solely for students of a particular political persuasion, it should no longer be worthy of Congressional support, taxpayer funding, or its exalted public image.”

Education and the Workforce Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development Chairman Burgess Owens, R-Utah., and Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., led the letter.

The foundation did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

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Wisconsin Lawmakers Push Questions About IDs For Illegal Immigrants, Voting

(The Center Square) – Some Wisconsin lawmakers are trying to calm fears about illegal immigrants getting IDs and voting in the state.

The Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections and the Senate Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection held a hearing Thursday with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, some local election clerks and Fond du Lac County’s district attorney.

“We're not trying to get anybody into a bad spot here, or in a corner, or make accusations on that level,” Sen. Dan Knodl, R-Germantown, said. “We want our clerks, who are already stressed enough, to know that we are here to be there as an assist to them.”

Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa, said he wants to make sure voters have faith in Wisconsin’s electoral process.

“This is one of the topics that hit our inboxes quite a bit the last three months or so,” Krug added. “We thought it’s pretty important just to vet it out, to get all the information out to the public.”

The Wisconsin Elections Commission was invited to Thursday’s meeting but didn’t attend because commissioners were having a meeting of their own. But that left lawmakers’ questions unanswered.

Wis-DOT Deputy Secretary Kristina Boardman said Wisconsin is known as a strict voter ID state.

“I want to make very clear that Wis-DOT is required to provide free identification cards for U.S. citizens that request them for the purposes of voting, and that to be eligible for that free identification card one must be a U.S. citizen and at least 17 years of age,” Boardman said. “Wis-DOT staff do not determine voter eligibility or register anyone to vote. Someone who has a Wisconsin ID or a driver's license is eligible to register to vote online, and that information will be confirmed with Wisconsin DMV systems to ensure that the information entered for voter registration is consistent with the DMV's records

Boardman said in Wisconsin, less than a fraction of one percent of ID requests are fraudulent.

“We put together [a] case activity report, assemble all of the documentation that we have, we have the investigator that had the case pull that together, and we do refer that to law enforcement so that they can take whatever action is appropriate,” Boardman added. “We note what statutes we believe may have been violated. And then it's up to law enforcement to take action.”

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Senate Republicans Override Evers’ Vetoes

(The Center Square) – On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate voted to override nine vetoes from Gov. Tony Evers, including the vetoes that scuttled PFAS clean-up money, millions of dollars that were earmarked for hospitals in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls and a plan that would allow advanced practice registered nurses to work more independently.

“The legislature has passed hundreds of bills to solve problems facing Wisconsin businesses and families. Most of these bills were signed into law, but many were vetoed by a governor more focused on politics than policies that help everyday Wisconsinites,” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said Tuesday. “Overriding the governor’s obstructive vetoes is the last, best way to address these critical issues.”

The override votes came one day after Evers sued the legislature over nearly $200 million that is attached to some of his vetoes.

Most of that money is the $125 million that’s supposed to go toward PFAS clean up in Wisconsin.

“For the fifth time this legislative session, I voted to provide Wisconsin families with the largest investment in clean drinking water in state history – five more times than every Democrat legislator in this state combined. The bill that Gov. Evers vetoed (SB 312) would have created a grant program that targets this critical funding to areas of the state most heavily impacted by PFAS contamination while protecting innocent landowners from financial ruin,” Sen Duey Stroebel, R-Cedarburg, said.

Evers has accused the legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee of obstructing his plans to clean up Wisconsin’s drinking water, and of delaying his other actions across the state.

LeMahieu said Evers is simply playing the game.

“While Gov. Evers plays politics, the legislature will continue to do the right thing on behalf of the people of our state,” LeMahieu added.

Senate Democrats responded with game-playing accusations of their own.

“Coming in to do all these veto overrides was clearly a stunt to try to appeal to voters ahead of the fall election,” Den. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, said. “Clearly Republicans were hearing from things in their district and wanted political cover. I don't think they got political cover today. I think what they got was people realizing just how afraid they are.”

But Tuesday’s veto overrides are largely symbolic.

While Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate have a veto-proof majority, Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly do not.

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Trump Holds Lead Over Biden Heading Toward November

With less than half a year until the 2024 presidential election, former President Donald Trump holds a sizable lead over incumbent President Joe Biden in several swing states.

While the overall national polling varies and shows a tighter race, Trump holds significant leads in several swing states.

According to Real Clear Politics, Trump leads in a slew of key battleground states like Arizona (+5.2), Georgia (+4.6), Michigan (+0.8), Nevada (+6.2), North Carolina (+5.4), Pennsylvania (+2.0), and Wisconsin (+0.6).

Other polling has shown Trump with a dominant lead in the Sun Belt while performing less well against Biden in some rust belt swing states.

“As the old saying goes, good gets better and bad gets worse, and it’s clear President Biden is in bad shape right now,” Colin Reed, a Republican strategist, former campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and co-founder of South and Hill Strategies, told The Center Square. “Five and a half months is an eternity in politics, and there’s theoretically still time to right the ship, but it’s getting late early for the president, especially when Father Time remains undefeated and doubts about his age continue to grow. “

According to the Real Clear Politics’ national polling average, Trump leads Biden 46.1% to 44.9%.

A New York Times poll released this week showed leads for Trump in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania but slightly trailing Biden in Wisconsin, raising concerns among supporters.

Trump’s lead has been in large part fueled by minority voters flocking to his side.

Meanwhile, Biden’s approval rating has plummeted since taking office. While that is not unusual for incumbents, Biden’s approval is lower than recent presidents.

Gallup recently released polling data showing that in the 13th quarter of Biden’s presidency, he averaged a 38.7% approval rating, worse than Trump at the same time in his term.

“None of the other nine presidents elected to their first term since Dwight Eisenhower had a lower 13th-quarter average than Biden,” Gallup said.

Axios reported this week that Biden and his team think the polls don’t represent Americans’ actual feelings and that the president’s position is strong.

“They're still 50% (well 45%) to win, per betting markets,” pollster Nate Silver wrote on X. “But Biden has been behind Trump in polls for a year now. His approval is in the tank, and voters have been clear they think he's too old. If Trump wins, history will not remember Biden kindly.”

Meanwhile, Trump spends valuable campaign time in a series of court appearances for his myriad of federal prosecution court dates.

“I’m under a gag order,” Trump told reporters after a court appearance Tuesday. “Nobody has actually seen anything like it ... I'm beating him in every poll and I have a gag order, so I think it's totally unconstitutional."

Republicans have blasted Biden for Trump’s prosecution, accusing Biden of using the Justice Department against his political opponent.

“Despite Far Left Democrats’ illegal election interference, President Trump is beating Joe Biden in the polls!” Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., wrote on X Tuesday. “Voters see right through the sham Biden Trials and know President Trump is the best choice for president.”


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