Streets of Old Milwaukee

Even more so than the dinosaurs, Hopi cliff dwellings or the jungle, the Milwaukee Public Museum’s beloved Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit has always been the highlight of my visits to the museum.

The exhibit consists of sprawling cobblestone streets lined with life-size houses and shops that existed in Milwaukee around 1880. Museum goers can look into windows to see scenes of people’s daily lives, allowing them to experience Milwaukee just before the turn of the century.

In celebration of the exhibit’s 50th anniversary, the Streets of Old Milwaukee was updated and reopened on December 11.

When I heard it was being redone I was a little wary: the place has a magical feel and part of me did not want it to be disturbed. However, I approached the exhibit with much anticipation.

The exhibit had an exciting new entrance that added to the magic of the experience: a passageway in the form of a trolley car. The car’s windows displayed a video of a moving street, and each subsequent window showed a less modern view to give the illusion of time travel. I thought this new addition provided an interactive way to separate the space from the rest of the museum while setting the scene for the exhibit.

The increase in technological enhancements continued. Posters encouraged visitors to download the new Streets of Old Milwaukee app, which allows museum goers to pick a character that gives them information about the different surroundings. The app provided a nice alternative to informational plaques, which would clutter the realistic scenes. However, I preferred to explore without it, as my cell phone felt out of place amongst the nineteenth century technology.

I was surprised to discover most of the exhibit remained unchanged, quelling my initial apprehensions.

The old magic of the place is still there and has simply been strengthened. The candy shop selling real candy to visitors is still open; the old lady statue still rocks in her rocking chair. But the exhibit has come alive. Projected silhouettes move in second story windows; it smells like bread outside the bakery; people can walk into the general store, pick up an old fashioned phone and listen to someone talking on the other end. These sensory additions were fun for me to discover and brought the experience to a new level.

The exhibit is supposed to change themes every six months, and the current theme is entertainment. It did not seem to me like most things were tied to the theme except for a movie theater that I could stop into and watch a silent movie. I also enjoyed pedaling an old fashioned bike.

Overall I was pleased to find the exhibit had not lost any of its charm; instead more sights, sounds and even smells heightened this prized tribute to our city.

by Sabine Peterka

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