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The need for a new history museum has been discussed for more than two decades. A new, state-of-the-art history center will allow the Wisconsin Historical Society to provide access to its world-class collection of 290 million items like never before and greatly increase the number of school groups served. The site of the new history center will double the exhibition space of the previous Wisconsin Historical Museum on Capitol Square, welcoming 200,000 guests annually and doubling the number of PK-12 students served to 60,000.
The previous museum, which opened in 1986 in a former hardware store, could not meet the needs or expectations of the public and lacked the space, controlled environments, and technology to adequately share our state and nation’s most significant artifacts and stories. Furthermore, the Midwest currently lacks a museum that connects our nation’s story to regional and state contributions. The new history center will address that gap by exploring Wisconsin’s history, while placing it in a broader context of North American history.
Much more than just a building, the center will also serve as a “history hub” for programs that reach throughout Wisconsin’s 72 counties, including traveling exhibitions, offsite programs, workshops, and digital outreach. The center design includes a community gallery space that will provide a platform for local organizations across Wisconsin to share the unique history of their communities with a much larger, broader audience. These partnerships will create a strong bridge between Madison and communities in every corner of Wisconsin and beyond.
The Society is designing a dynamic cultural hub that transcends the traditional museum experience. It became evident that "history center" was a more accurate way to refer to what the facility will offer. It will feature state-of-the-art digital technology to serve and engage the public both in-person and virtually, host a variety of programming, serve as the state’s “history hub” and home for the Society’s PK-12 educational programming, and be the flagship “front door” of the Society, helping connect the public to the vast array of services, resources and educational opportunities it offers.
The new history center will be built on the west side of Wisconsin’s Capitol Square in Madison, where the top of State Street intersects with Mifflin and Carroll streets, on a site that includes the former Wisconsin Historical Museum and two adjacent properties. The bustling corner is one of the most iconic and frequently visited locations in Wisconsin, situated in the heart of the capital city’s civic and cultural corridor. This prime location makes it especially convenient for school groups to continue to visit the Capitol, Veteran’s Museum and history center in a single trip, as has been the case for decades, and contributes to a thriving cultural district that will attract visitors from across the state, region and nation.
The current buildings are expected to be demolished in early 2024 and groundbreaking for the new history center is scheduled to occur that summer. Construction is expected to take just over two years, with the building being completed in late 2026. A construction firm will be selected following the authorization to construct from the State Building Commission.
The overall design and construction budget for the project is $160.5 million. It will be 70 percent publicly funded with 30 percent coming from private gifts. The Wisconsin Historical Foundation is actively fundraising on behalf of the Wisconsin Historical Society to fully fund the project and leverage $112.3 million in State support. As of June 2023, $39.5 million in private gifts has been raised toward a total private fundraising goal of $66.5 million, which includes additional funds for transition and opening costs. Once open, the center will benefit from admission and special event ticket sales, a retail store, as well as revenue generated from food and beverage, facility rentals and other programming. Learn more about how to support the campaign.
At 100,000 square feet, the new five-story history center will be double the size of the former Wisconsin Historical Museum located on Capitol Square. Nearly a third of the square footage will be permanent gallery space. Among other features and amenities, it will also include an 8,000-square-foot temporary gallery large enough to bring the nation’s most sought-after traveling exhibitions to Wisconsin, as well as a community gallery featuring exhibits that will be created in partnership with local history and cultural organizations from across the state.
A portion of the history center will be free and open to the public, including the rotating community gallery, cafe and community programming spaces. Guests will need to purchase a ticket to explore and enjoy the rest of the permanent and traveling gallery experiences. Ticket revenue is necessary to support the center’s operations. However, the Society is committed to ensuring broad access so there will be discounted and free admission options as well as a robust schedule of free public programs offered year-round. Members of the Wisconsin Historical Society will receive free admission to the history center as one of their benefits. Learn more about membership.
In addition to an experienced team of Society subject matter experts and historians, the Society has deployed a robust community engagement strategy to inform and guide history center planning. We have been engaging residents from all regions of Wisconsin for several years in preparation for the design phase of this project. Dozens of “Share Your Voice” listening sessions were held in communities across the state in 2018 and 2019 to gather feedback from more than 5,000 residents to ensure a wide range of perspectives are included in history center planning. Included were consultations with Wisconsin’s Native Nations and sessions with urban and rural residents, multicultural communities, educators, students, and others.
That work has continued, with numerous focus groups and consultations across the state including individuals from diverse backgrounds, including PK-12 educators, disability advocates, and individuals focused on LGBTQ+ history, rural history, immigrant history, refugee history and other community advisory groups. A scholarly advisory committee of distinguished national academic leaders was also formed to evaluate plans and offer expert feedback and an ongoing Native Nations Council is established for consultation and collaboration with the 11 federally recognized tribal nations and additional Indigenous communities of Wisconsin. A cross-agency team will ensure that community voices and experiences will continue to be reflected in all history center work.
The Society has partnered with a world-class architectural and design team to build the Midwest's next great cultural attraction:
- Milwaukee-based Continuum Architects + Planners has won numerous awards for its work, including for the UW-Madison Chazen Museum of Art, the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences and the UW-Milwaukee Welcome Center & Lubar Center for Entrepreneurship.
- SmithGroup, based in Detroit, features an extensive portfolio of award-winning architectural projects within Wisconsin and around the globe, including the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., where it collaborated with Ralph Appelbaum Associates.
- Ralph Appelbaum Associates, based in New York, is one of the world’s leading exhibition design firms and is responsible for hundreds of major cultural attractions worldwide that are visited annually by more than 75 million people.
Designed to be a welcoming beacon of inspiration and exploration, the new center will reflect a modern approach to sharing history. The design embodies and embraces the state of Wisconsin by incorporating sightlines to the surrounding landscape and weaving that connection into the storytelling experience. The five-story rotated building form looks beyond Madison to physically and symbolically connect with all of Wisconsin, revealing new perspectives as your vantage point changes.
The center is wrapped in a layered façade that provides movement and depth to the building’s exterior that, much like history, reveals new perspectives as your vantage point changes. Local materials including weathered zinc, embossed stainless steel, granite and bird-safe glass create a dynamic exterior inspired by Wisconsin’s shifting landscapes, the movement of the surrounding lakes and the state’s rich history of industry and innovation.
The unique design will stand out among its neighbors on Capitol Square, enhancing the energy of this lively location and benefiting the Downtown district as visitors from across the region and beyond come to enjoy this unforgettable cultural experience.
After the museum exhibitions were dismantled in late 2022 to prepare the building for future demolition, items on display were carefully packaged and transferred to the State Archive Preservation Facility in Madison, where most Society collections are housed. During the interim period until the history center opens, some collections will be shared with the public at events across the state as well as special events held at the Society’s temporary programming space on Capitol Square inside US Bank Plaza. Many of these items, alongside many never-before-seen collection pieces, will be included in history center exhibitions.
The history center wants to be a good neighbor throughout the demolition of the former Wisconsin Historical Museum (30 North Carroll Street) and adjacent properties (20-22 North Carroll Street) and construction of the new building. The construction process by its nature causes disruptions and the Society is committed to work to minimize those disruptions and inconveniences. The construction staging will take place on West Mifflin Street adjacent to the site. A covered walkway will surround the site and pedestrian and bicycle traffic will be maintained on Mifflin, State and Carroll Streets. Contractors will have provisions in their contracts to maintain a clean and organized construction site, provide flag persons at gates, mitigate dust, work within the hours prescribed by the City of Madison, and maintain regular communications with neighboring property owners and businesses on construction progress and any issues that may arise. Construction techniques will be used to protect structures surrounding the construction area.
With the previous museum closed, how can people engage with the Wisconsin Historical Society during the construction period?
Throughout construction of the new history center, the Society will continue to offer public and school group programming in a temporary space on the main level of the US Bank Plaza at 1 S. Pinckney Street, across the Capitol Square from the former Wisconsin Historical Museum. The Society began hosting school groups at the space in March 2023, with a full public programming launch in fall 2023 that will include pop-up exhibits, author talks, history center sneak peeks and a refreshed retail shop.
The Society will also continue to serve the public through a “museum without walls” initiative that will bring programs to every region of the state. Travelling exhibits, public art installations, author talks, K-12 programs, and special events will share compelling stories and feature treasured items from the collections starting September 2023 until the history center is completed in late 2026. These events will not only connect state residents with collections and services but will also solicit their feedback to continue to inform history center planning and future programming.
Additionally, residents can always explore the Society’s historic sites and museums, view online collections at wisconsinhistory.org, and shop the Society’s online retail story at shop.wisconsinhistory.org. The Society also provides numerous resources for school groups and educators.
Finally, the best way to stay connected and get the latest information about Society happenings is to become a member.
Yes! The center will be an incredible addition to Wisconsin’s civic infrastructure for PK-12 students, families, weekend visitors, and people coming to the Madison area for events or conferences. It will enhance the image of and what’s known about Wisconsin, engage and inspire state residents, and attract out-of-state tourists, businesses and workers. Research shows that museums provide a measurable effect on the economy. According to the American Alliance of Museums, for every $1 invested by the government in museums, $7 is returned in tax revenue. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the nonprofit arts and cultural industry annually generates over $135 billion (about $420 per person in the U.S.) in economic activity, supports more than 4.1 million full-time jobs and returns over $22 billion in local, state and federal tax revenues. In addition, exhibitions in the new history center that highlight communities across Wisconsin will inspire guests to visit those locations, boosting their local economy and overall state tourism.
Yes! Underscoring its broad appeal, former Govs. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and Tommy Thompson, a Republican, have served as the Society’s fundraising campaign co-chairs for the project. During his tenure as governor from 1987-2001, Thompson was the first to suggest that the state needed and deserved a new history museum on Capitol Square, and subsequent governors and legislative members have been supportive, too. Funding for the final iteration of the project was included in biennial budget proposals by both Republican Gov. Scott Walker and current Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and was approved by the State Legislature and its Joint Committee on Finance. We are incredibly appreciative of the ongoing support from our state legislators.
The Wisconsin Historical Society will lead operations. The facility will help the Society, a state agency, fulfill its statutory obligation and core mission of connecting the people of Wisconsin to the past by collecting, preserving, and sharing stories.
We welcome your involvement and support! Of course, you can make a financial gift to keep the project moving forward by donating online or contacting a member of our Development Team, but you can also make a difference in many other ways.
You can be an advocate by telling your friends, colleagues, legislators and others why you think a new history center is important and ask them to join you in supporting the Wisconsin Historical Society and the project. In addition, you can sign up for our Milestones new history center e-newsletter to be among the first to learn about project updates and engagement opportunities; you can participate in virtual or in-person listening sessions as they are held; you can follow the Society on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter for behind-the-scenes peeks at project development (in addition to other wonderful Wisconsin history content), join the conversation by publicly expressing your support in the comments section of social media posts, and be an influencer by sharing our posts and your support within your network. We greatly appreciate all support for the project!
The Wisconsin Historical Society has existed since 1846, two years before statehood, with a mission to connect people to the past by collecting, preserving, and sharing stories. Our vision is to enrich and transform lives through unparalleled access to history and we are proud to be considered among the best state historical societies in the nation. We serve all citizens, from professional historians to family history researchers to students of all ages — and everyone in between. Our world-renowned Wisconsin and North American history collection (numbering nearly 290 million items), expansive library and archives, and expertise in historic preservation and other areas makes us the right organization to be building a cultural attraction of the magnitude of the new history center. Many lead donors have said that they contributed to the project because they feel Wisconsin deserves a history center that is equal to the quality and stature of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Learn more about the Society, its divisions and the services it provides.
The Wisconsin Historical Foundation is a 510(c)(3) tax-exempt organization founded in 1954 to advance the mission of the Wisconsin Historical Society. The Foundation, located inside the Society's headquarters building on the UW-Madison campus, receives grants and private contributions benefitting the Society, administers the Society’s membership program and planned giving program, and provides services for fundraising, marketing and communications.