Thursday, January 19, 2012

Milwaukee. Milwaukee? Milwaukee! Part 1 (Yes, this post is late.)

When I tell people that I went to Milwaukee over the weekend for fun, they give me this weird look. As if I am crazy. Why yes. I am.

A frozen Milwaukee River passing through the central core of the city


All the way back in September, when I was still in China, I realized that day-trips are

a) very achieveable in the US, with our wonderful cheap cheap bus system. Greyhound Express is amazing. It costs less to travel 250 miles roundtrip here than in Mainland China.

b) a great way to see different states/places - I did a fair few to the Philadelphia area when I was in high school and volunteering for Obama/looking at schools. It's a really nice way to get a taste of a different world and go to bed at home.

c) absurdly fun. I did some of these trips over the summer in China and had a blast. Guangzhou or Zhongshan, anyone?

So I decided to plan a day trip. Here's the thing: many of the places in the Midwest are either extremely seasonal (hiking, beaches, etc.) or a bit of a stretch for a day. Milwaukee nicely avoids that.

The original plan was to do it in the middle of autumn, but life happened. So I organized it for Martin Luther King Day and got three of my friends to come...

My friends waiting for a bus later on in the trip. Left to right: Douglas, Hillel, David


We took an early morning bus up to Milwaukee. Buses aren't really much to write home about, but the road is.

Firstly: you know you're in Wisconsin because, suddenly, the road quality becomes fantastic. The highway up in Kenosha County is ridiculously smooth, and the ride doesn't bump pretty much until you hit Milwaukee.

Secondly: CHEESE.

I totally understand now why people talk about cheese and Wisconsin together. The state is literally bleeding cheese.  On the highway, you see things like a giant billboard that just says CHEESE, and then you see establishments like this:

Mars Cheese Castle, in Kenosha, WI. Jay Stanton told me that his parents would make pit stops here on the way back from Jewish camps so as to provide some entertainment.

Thirdly: there is a really sharp line between Illinois and Wisconsin, and that is in football. I hate the sport, but I can't help but notice the sheer proliferation of Green Bay Packers paraphernalia all over the state. On the flyover into Downtown Milwaukee, I saw a flag for the Packers that was at least eight by twelve. Truly enormous.


We got into the bus station at about ten-thirty, and went about first exploring a little bit of Milwaukee's central city.

Downtown Milwaukee has a rather different flavor form that of Chicago. Firstly, the architecture is more ornate: while Chicago's architecture is somewhat simpler and Germanic, Milwaukee very much follows the "classical" school. Many columns, many little features, and very grandiose for a town that, for most of its history, has played a very much softer second fiddle to a giant city just down the lake. The trying to prove something.

There's also a certain "artificial" flavor to the area. Chicago's central core is very "lived-in." Milwaukee's is very...stiff, in a certain regard. It's not quite a place you go on the weekend.

That doesn't mean that we didn't see some interesting buildings on our way:

The Milwaukee Public Library

A Presbyterian Church dating from 1870

A Victorian gazebo on the grounds of the Wisconsin Club. The Club is a gated social gathering place of a certain sort - it seems to be quite exclusive. This little pavilion, however, is adorable.
The Milwaukee County Courthouse. In 1925, the B'nai Jeshurun synagogue and various (read: Jewish) surroundings were torn down to make way for this colossal construction. Milwaukee had some strong ethnic divisions in its day - and anti-Semitism was part of that mix. The situation has improved since then, though: Milwaukee is the hometown of Israel's former Prime Minister, Golda Meir, and the city has taken great pride in that fact.

We slowly wove our way up to our big destination number 1: the Milwaukee Public Museum.


The Museum is one of these big general museums that have a touch of everything, but nothing major. It is very much aimed for a local audience - and it very much attracts one at that. The exhibits come in three flavors: science, Milwaukee history, and general culture.

A set of bones, dressed up for Christmas. I nicknamed it "Santasaur."

We mostly roamed the museum. The science exhibits were small, but interesting and very well presented. The Old Milwaukee exhibit was a bit strange. There was a "model room" area called European Village. The exhibit consisted of a few dozen ostensibly authentic rooms from each of the European ethnicities that came from Milwaukee. This is what I have to note:

1. Some of the ethnicities were not so badly done, particularly the Slavs.

2. But some were completely and utterly hackneyed, particularly the Jews and some other groups.

3. It was all very, very, very overdone and romanticized.

National costume dolls in the European Village exhibit.

The Old Milwaukee exhibit was...somewhat irritating. However, it was an utterly fascinating study in museum design, exhibit design, and how cultural institutions cater to an audience's core expectations. I left thinking not about cultures and misrepresentation, but how museums work.

Finally, I myself went over to the cultural exhibits, which were further upstairs, and walked through the Arctic exhibit. The information is somewhat dated - I am left to wonder about the MPM's funds - but generally not so bad. However, they continue to use "Eskimo" for "Inuit"- which was rather irksome. Again, I was made to think of museum exhibit design and content control - how does one explain these things to different audiences?

We are, after all, in Wisconsin.

A print by a Nunavummiuq artist in the Arctic exhibit.

We left the Museum after a good amount of time and continued our urban adventures...(coming soon)

An awesome installation on the East Side of the Milwaukee River

1 comment:

  1. What a great idea! I'm going to have to start doing such a day trip someday.