In Arts & Entertainment

Dr. Ellen Censky is the new president and CEO of Milwaukee Public Museum. (PHOTO: Andrew Feller)

Milwaukee Talks: Milwaukee Public Museum President/CEO Dr. Ellen Censky

Now that interim Milwaukee Public Museum President and CEO Dr. Ellen Censky has been given the position on a permanent basis, we caught up with her to talk a bit about the museum and its future.

Censky, who was serving as the museum's Senior VP and Academic Dean, became acting president and CEO upon the departure of former president and CEO Dennis Kois last August. The museum's board of directors gave her the title permanently in June.

"After an extensive national search that included speaking with qualified individuals from around the country and the world, we know we've identified the right leader to guide the Milwaukee Public Museum into the future," said Susan Martin, chair of MPM's Search Committee, in a statement at the time.

"Ellen's exceptional scientific achievements, her vision for and deep understanding of the Milwaukee Public Museum, and her commitment to this community make her the right person for the job."

A Cedarburg native and UW-Milwaukee grad, Censky – who got her start working at the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1977 returned home about a decade ago after working as the Director of the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History and Director and CEO of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

We caught up with her recently. Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks with Milwaukee Public Museum's Dr. Ellen Censky.

OnMilwaukee: I know everyone that you talk to is asking about the future of the museum and where it'll end up, and all that. How much of your day is spent on planning for a move, discussions about a move, every aspect of it?

Dr. Ellen Censky: Probably at least 50 percent of my time is spent on looking to the future and the other 50 percent is making sure we still thrive until we get to that future.

When you're not in this moving mode, you would presumably be devoting 100 percent of your time to everything else at the museum. What are some of the things that are going on there that you're dealing with that we're not really talking about because we're so wrapped up in this other stuff?

So, one of the big things that over the last 10 years I've been focused on, and that continues to be a focus, is building up the scientific capacity of the museum.

When I came in 10 years ago, we weren't at the level that we wanted to be as a natural history museum. Natural history museums remain relevant when they are doing research because that research keeps you relevant and keeps you in the know on what is going on out there in terms of of new knowledge.

So, over the course of time, we've been building that capacity and we've been doing it by getting a few key hirings, which are some dynamic young researchers, and giving them the support to just take off and do their collaborative efforts.

But then also by building partnerships with universities in the area. (It was), I would say, almost depressing, when you were on the upper floors over 10 years ago; it was just empty office after empty office. Now we can't find space for people because we have so many partnerships.

How many are there at the moment?

We've got 27 adjunct curators who are involved in doing research in the collections. Not all 27 on a daily basis, but there are people up there on a daily basis doing research on insects, on amphibians and reptiles, on the cultural aspects of our collections, on geology and paleontology. Now it's a thriving place. So, we continue to build those kinds of partnerships.

We had a wonderful donor who gave us some money to do some testing of different ways to become more scientifically relevant. And so, in the summers, we award research fellowships to young people who've recently gotten their PhDs. Many of them are in teaching universities and don't have the opportunity to build their resume because they don't have the time to do the research. So, we pay them in the summer to do research here in the museum and then we tap into them as a resource for current knowledge in their particular areas. We're really continuing to build that.

We're building our citizen science programs through these researchers, too. Each of our research curators has been charged with involving the citizens in some way in different aspects of their research. We've got butterfly surveys going on that involves citizens, we've got firefly surveys going on that involve citizens.

We also do a major event which we just completed which was the Bio Blitz, which is a 24-hour inventory of a park. We invite the public to come in and help us with that. So, we're building on the science side and then we're continuing to build our programs and build our capacity to deliver programs to the public.

When you talked about how 10 years ago there you didn't have the same kind of academic capacity that you have now, was that a dip from where it had been before that?

Yes. What happened was when we had our financial crisis in 2005, one of the areas that took a big hit all of the areas of the museum took a hit but one of the biggest impacts was research and collections. And so, a lot of the people doing research in the museum were the ones who were laid off.

We went from, I believe it was somewhere around 27 people in research and collections, down to nine people. And those nine people who remained were people who were taking care of the collections. And so, there was little focus on research.

I come out of a research background and understand that, in order to actually provide current and accurate information in your programming and in your exhibits, you need to have that research going on because it just keeps you current. You need to have it in some way and you need to tap into that.

We have four million objects in our collections and three million of those are things that we wouldn't put on display because they're the research collections. They're the things that if you have 600,000 fish that are in jars of alcohol aren't going to go on display. But those are such a resource for scientists not only from the museum but from around the world. And how do those scientists know that we have those? One way is through that research. When you're publishing on it, you get in the acknowledgements, and it shows that it's from this museum. So that's one way.

The other thing that we've been doing to help with that aspect is we've put a big effort into digitization to get those collections much more accessible to those researchers but also to the public. We now have a full-time person who is overseeing a big digitization project and we've been bringing in funding from the National Science Foundation to help us to get these things digitized.

That, again, shows your relevance to the scientific community, but then all of that information can feed back into this museum so that we can utilize it in our programming and in our exhibits.

Okay, let's talk about the 50 percent of your day that's going toward talk of a new location, of a building, all that. And you know I'm going to bother you about the new location later.

Yeah and you know I'm not going to say anything about it.

Oh, I know (laughs), but I'll ask you anyway. In the meantime, let's talk about the parts that we maybe don't understand are taking up some of that. Presumably 50 percent of that time is not deciding where the place is going to be. There's got to be a lot of other discussion.

You know the site, which is the exciting thing for people because it's a tangible thing, is such a small part of this whole new museum.

Let's hear about the rest.

OK. The rest is what is that museum going to deliver. Why should MPM even be around? Why should we be part of this community? So, we are in the process of doing that, of completing that visioning and statement of purpose, which is what are we going to be in this new museum and how is it going to be relevant to this community?

We are looking to our strengths and those strengths lie in those collections. One thing I know everybody's very concerned that they don't want us to be, because they've heard that we're going to utilize technology, and I think they conjure up that we're not going to be this immersive environment. But we will still utilize collections and we will still be an immersive museum because that's where our strengths are.

I don't know what it'll look like but I do know that it will draw on those strengths of those collections which are those natural history collections and those cultural collections. We really want to talk about the interconnection of those two, which is not unlike what we do in this museum; we just don't interpret it in the way we might in the future.

You know, if you go to most natural history museums out there, what you see is they have the hall of people, then they have the hall of the natural world, and they separate the two. This institution chose, when it moved into this place 50-something years ago, that they were going to put people and the environment in the same galleries – and we did that, but we didn't interpret it that way. So, that's one of the things that we want to do in the future: really talk about that interconnection of people and nature.

So, the processes that we're going through before we ever even get to thinking about a building is what is that vision. That's the process that we are just about completing.

Then the second step would be the storylines that you're going to tell in that museum. Then you do the schematics and then you go into exhibit design. Our commitment is that, in the visioning process, we've been involving the community and there's been input as we go through this process. We will continue to do that as we move to each of the next steps.

We will bring it out to the community and talk about it and then come back and rework based on that. Those are all the steps before we ever even think about what will this building look like, because we need to know what's going to be in it before we ever can design something.

Also, we're talking about we want to have partners and so those partners may help influence the physical nature of this museum.

What would you say to the people that panic about certain familiar experiences at the museum that they're afraid will go away? I asked your predecessor about this a few years ago when this discussion first came up and he said that things like the the buffalo diorama or the Streets of Old Milwaukee are so iconic that there's no way you could not take them along. Is that still the thinking?

You know, I would hate to venture what we're going to take at this point and what we won't. I know that the reality is that all of these things were built in, and so you can't just pick up and move them. Because they are built-in and the new space is going to be configured differently. So, I don't want to focus on what we have here now. I want to focus on what the future will be and how we can deliver to the 21st century audience the immersive experience that they need and want.

I'm not going to say what's going to go and what's not going to go because I don't know.

I know you've talked a little bit about a site. Is it safe to say that the Domes discussion is over?

We were happy to be involved with this and the County had said, "Would you be part of a study that looked at whether it would be feasible to put the Domes and the museum together on at the Domes site?" Then the County hired a consultant who looked into it and the consultant's report came back saying that the only feasible way that they felt it could be done is to take the Domes down.

The County's policy is that they are not prepared to take the Domes down. And so, given that study said that it's not feasible to put the museum there, that is pretty much where it landed. So I would say, yes, the Domes, given the study that was done, that's not feasible.

Is it also safe to say based on what I've read that you would prefer to stay Downtown or in the Downtown area?

That would be our preference just because that's where we've been our entire history. And I do want to point out that everybody thinks of us as having been in this one building because that's what most of us remember, but in fact we've been in four different homes. And so, this new one will be a fifth. So, we have moved and people have moved with us, meaning that we didn't lose our audience. We've just grown our audiences as we've moved.

So, the sky is not falling just because there's a new building?

Correct.

And this should be a positive thing (for Milwaukee), right?

Yes. What I like to say, if you look at this museum, it has been cutting edge at very specific points in its history. I mean it's been cutting edge throughout, but that there have been very specific points in its history when it's been cutting edge.

I like to say that the first one is when it was brought into being as a public institution because I would say that there were very few public institutions at that time. Most of them were privately financed. And so, the Milwaukee community was given this wonderful cultural institution to have and to actually help to shape this community. We all became museum-goers because this was ours. So that was cutting edge.

We were cutting edge when Carl Akeley created the very first diorama (here). That was cutting edge. Then we moved into this institution and we blew that diorama out of the water by just exploding it and creating this immersive environment. And so, we've been cutting edge along the way. And so, I ask, "What is the next cutting edge thing we can do in this new building?"

I want us to be leading the way in the museum world – and in a 21st century learning institution, what does that mean? How can we do this in a way that's pushing Milwaukee? There are so many great things going on in Milwaukee; how can we be part of that?

What we'll be looking at is the next cutting edge thing we can do that doesn't lose what we've been in the past but pushes the envelope into the future.


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