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Change in Trajectory
Bay native brings bold ideas to Milwaukee Public Museum

Photos by Dan Bishop

August 2014

Twenty years ago, Dennis Kois wrapped up an internship with the Milwaukee Public Museum. "I only wish now that the day I left Iíd stood outside, shaken my fist and shouted, ĎIím going to run this place someday!í he laughs. And now he is having the opportunity to do just that, named MPMís president and CEO in February.

Since those early days, Kois has certainly moved up in the museum world. Credentials include executive director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Boston, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Smithsonianís Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. He regularly lectures on art- and museum-related topics.

He also has worked with partner museums in Asia and Europe on exhibitions and collections, and served as an adjunct professor of the graduate program in museum studies at George Washington University.

Thatís an impressive climb up the ladder for a local boy, an honors graduate of UW-Milwaukee with a bachelorís degree in museum design. Kois has a masterís degree in museum studies from New York University. While at UWM, he served as an exhibition and graphic designer with the UWM Art Museum. "Itís such a pleasure to be back. Some of the things the Midwest is famous for are still here in abundance, such as the kindness and the positive outlook," says Kois.

Kois also sees a fresh vibrancy in Milwaukee culture. The Whitefish Bay native enjoys exploring the nascent foodie scene, new restaurants and changed neighborhoods. "Iím still new, so Iím spending a lot of time listening to our supporters, talented staff and docents, partners in county government who help support the museum and the community," he reflects, pointing out that the future of MPM hinges on focusing on what it means to be a museum in the 21st century. This includes preserving the facilityís amazing collection of 4.5 million specimens and artifacts and expanding MPMís ability to be a forum for public dialogue and diversity.

In Koisí vision, these overlap, and he plans to build from these strengths to be an innovative, top-tier educational and research institution. The museumís greatest strength is also its biggest challenge, he says. "The dioramas and displays at MPM are top-notch. You arenít going to find better anywhere, period. The whole idea of the museum diorama was literally invented here, and we still have the very first one in the world, from 1890," he says. Yet that raises the question of how does the museum keep the galleries ó which are difficult and expensive to change ó relevant and topical?

Kois has several ideas to maintain and expand on the museumís mission. "First, Iíd like to see us insert and overlay technology in the galleries, from constantlyupdated, large-format HD video about the frontiers of research, to thematic exhibitions utilizing the tablets and smart phones many visitors already bring to the museum," he says. "These can reframe objects and connect ideas."

Secondly, Milwaukeeans will see the museum turned inside-out by partnering with what Kois calls "fascinating people, organizations, academics, influencers and thinkers." He wants the museum to become the go-to connector for people who are curious about their world.

That could mean the museum is taking guests to meet the kid starting a skate deck business out of his garage, he says, or a farmer raising heritage pigs and supplying artisanal chefs, the scientists studying the lake at the water council or an innovative choreographer riffing on the traditions of Milwaukee immigrant dance. MPM has the curators, expertise and collections to connect the dots to science, to local history and to the natural world, he says. "Museums arenít just about whatís in the building. Culture is a living, changing thing,"

And third, Kois is thinking local. "Thereís a Ďlocavoreí movement, a local music scene, restaurants serving locally sourced ingredients and a unique local culture. Why shouldnít our museum recognize and celebrate what makes Wisconsin ó and Milwaukee ó unique?" There is an incredibly rich culture and history to this state, as well as a unique local natural history that we can use to tell topical, global stories."

This might include an exhibit on global warming through the lens of Wisconsin cranberry farmers, beekeepers, local wildlife, foodies, sport fishermen and the regional economy. "So what does global warming mean for us, here, now?" Kois ponders, indicating that the museum should surely be able to help explore such issues.

"Twenty years in contemporary art museums will definitely inform my thinking in leading a museum of natural history. You canít have worked in a place where creating a 9-inch snowball in the middle of summer, displaying a sectioned car or having artists live on platforms in the museum for weeks on end are all regular occurrences and not come to respect the notion that there are a lot of unconventional ways to engage visitors and spark conversations" he says.

"I owe the start of my career in museums to the MPM field trips of my youth. It was during those school visits that I discovered that MPM connected me to a world of ideas, history and culture that was, in the most literal sense of the word, transforming."

In that vein, Kois strongly indicates that there is a great deal that can be done to build on the good work of past museum chief Jay Williams, the board and the talented MPM team to advance the museum as an example of how such American institutions can be even more central to civic life and citizens. "I love Milwaukee and MPM, and Iím excited to be coming home," he says.

The MPM is not just a Milwaukee County gem but one for the broader community, Kois emphasizes. "There seems to be much more either/or thinking than when I grew up in town," he says. "For example, several people have already suggested to me that MPM, because it is has a great relationship with the county, is only for people in Milwaukee, which is patently incorrect."

He scoffs at that attitude, citing that more than half of MPMís attendance ó hundreds of thousands of people a year ó come from Waukesha, Ozaukee, Racine and other Wisconsin counties. He wants to get past the idea that "Milwaukee" is just within the city lines. "Itís a region, a whole collection of towns, villages and neighborhoods," he says, promising that MPM is going to be a leader in facilitating regional dialogue.

Reflecting on how his outgoing personality is an asset, Kois says he enjoys meeting interesting people. "From that perspective being a museum director is a dream job. There are incredible creatives, leaders and thinkers in this community at every level," he says.

This story ran in the August 2014 issue of: