Behind the Scenes: Milwaukee Art Museum Research Center

Behind the Scenes: Milwaukee Art Museum Research Center

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) – Locals and tourists know and love the iconic Milwaukee Art Museum, but much of the work behind the scenes happens at the lesser-known Milwaukee Art Museum Research Center.

"We are the hub for research and deeper understanding of the art collection at the museum," said Anthony Morgano, a librarian and archivist at the center.

Hundreds of years of Milwaukee Art Museum archives live inside the historic Downer Mansion on Prospect Avenue.

"It's this beautiful mansion from 1874, and it allows us to have a really fantastic place to welcome researchers," Morgano explained.

Before 2016, everything was kept in the museum's main building.

Now, archivists like Morgano use the separate space to keep museum records.

We have items in the archives that go all the way back toward our founding in the 1880s, we have press clippings back to that period of time as well," Morgano said. "The Art Research Library itself was founded in 1916, so some of those books go back as far as that."

One of the first rooms in the mansion is the George Peckham Miller Art Research Library.

"About 35,000 volumes spanning all topics of art history, but really focusing in on the artists and art movements that are most prevalent in our collection," Morgano explained. "The shelving is on a rolling system which allows us to store as many books as humanly possible."

Museum curators use the library on almost a daily basis. It is also a resource for students and community members.

"When a curator is developing an exhibition, they're going to want to learn as much as possible about all the artists that are going to be represented in that exhibition," Morgano said. "It's really a way to dig deeper into the experience you have at the museum. If you go and see a work of art or an artist and want to know more, we're the place to come to."

The building houses much more than just books. Across from the library is the artist files room.

"There are over 3,000 files that represent artists in our collection," said Frank Foss, the Milwaukee Art Museum's institutional archivist.

Archivists, like Foss, collect and organize anything that can enhance research.

"It's a lot of unearthing and bringing those stories to life," Foss said.

Out of the museum's 200 employees, volunteers are another important piece. Many work at the research center to log information.

"They're the people who are scanning articles and entering metadata, so that when you're searching for something by somebody's name or particular subject, you're able to pull up everything that you need," Morgano said. "It's a labor of love for everyone in the museum, and we each have our individual piece in that, and without one piece, it wouldn't work."

As a whole, the research center is the museum's index - out of the spotlight, but crucial to its success.

"We see the art, and we interact with it from that perspective, but there's all this intellectual work that goes into it. So for every item you see on this table, we are painstakingly cataloging it," Foss explained.

The Milwaukee Art Museum Research Center and its archivists give protection and honor to each story told.

"There are a lot of people who really care about this work and are working behind the scenes diligently and quietly. No one ever knows," Foss said.

Click here to learn more about the Milwaukee Art Museum Research Center.

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