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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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,
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.
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.
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.