Milwaukee Art Museum – Milwaukee, Wisconsin - Atlas Obscura
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Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Milwaukee Art Museum

This striking art museum holds an amazing series of curiosity cabinets. 

Like the Guggenheim in New York and the Oakland Museum in California, the building of the Milwaukee Art Museum is a piece of art in itself. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the museum is shaped liked a bird taking flight over the lake. Large metal beams extend from the museum, mimicking wings, and steel cables stretch into tail feathers. The beams descend in the evening, when the museum closes and the bird lands, and reopens each morning.

If the magnificent structure weren’t compelling enough, the collection of the MAM is everything you want out of a small museum - comprehensive but precise with famous work alongside new pieces by great contemporary artists. One of Andy Warhols’ Brillo Boxes next to a Robert Smithson sculpture with Tara Donovan’s Bluffs, a sculpture made in 2009, in the background. Made of thousands of buttons, Bluffs recalls a Dr. Suess dream, a Martian landscape, and New Mexico.

Hidden in the basement, the museum welcomes you to their “Chair Park” where visitors can sample the chairs usually kept behind glass: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Peacock Chair, Eero Saarinen’s Tulip Chair, and many others.

The museum, along with the Chipstone Foundation, also commissioned a permanent installation by Wisconsin artist Martha Glowacki: Loca Miraculi: Rooms of Wonder. The installation is a take on cabinets of curiosity, a predecessor of the museum from the 1600s, in which wealthy men displayed their collections of both manmade and natural objects that elicited awe and wonder in the viewer.

Glowacki’s installation is made of three distinct rooms: (1) Animal, Vegetable and Mineral, (2) Ceramica, and (3) Optical Devices & The China Cabinet. Each room combines new pieces of work alongside found antique objects. The China Cabinet is subdivided into Raritas, Rei Extincta, Rei Inexplicabila, and Errata. Rei Extincta contains not extinct animals but extinct objects like chamber pots, puzzle jugs, and posset pots. The puzzle jugs and posset pot were communal drinking vessels that went extinct when individual glasses became standard.

The installation mimics cabinets of curiosities down to the drawers that viewers pull out themselves. Early cabinets were in someone’s large drawing room or house and visitors would open doors and drawers to find more things, as organization wasn’t very important in these early museums. In Ceramica, each display cabinet has more books, images, fossils, and sculptures hidden in lower layers.

The museum also has galleries dedicated exclusively to Folk & Outsider American Art. Many of the objects do not have attribution but are simply “American.” Others were made by Edgar Tolson (a famous wood carver) or John W. Perates. This collection includes unique specimens from the Civil War era like canes that soldiers carved for themselves after the war honoring their fellow soldiers who perished and other events of the war.