With roots dating back a century ago, the Neville Public Museum owes its beginnings to a group of nine women who formed the Green Bay Art Club. They put together a temporary display of found objects, which led to the creation of the museum and opened up the possibility for art opportunities in Green Bay.
“Their idea was to bring the world to Green Bay,” says Beth Lemke, Neville Public Museum executive director. “How novel of an idea in 1915 before smartphones and social media.”
The museum took shape in the basement of the Kellogg Public Library and in 1927 it expanded. The site where the museum is today was constructed in the early 1980s following a referendum before the county to take over operation of the Neville and build a new building. The current site opened to the public in April 1983 and continues to be operated by the county.“The reason that it grew is because the people built on the shoulders of those before them,” says Ann Koski, past executive director of the museum. “There were important people in the community who felt the museum was important and worked to build it so.”
In Koski’s time at the Neville, she worked to break the barriers of what was going on in the museum world and attract the attention of the community. One such exhibit that did so brought dinosaurs to the Neville. At the time, a single dinosaur cast cost about $50,000. Rather than purchase a cast, Koski set forth with the assistance of Jim Lawton, then curator of exhibits, to rent some.
“One skeleton does not an exhibit make,” Koski notes as she explained how she convinced Lawton that even though renting “wasn’t done,” it was something they needed to try.
That year, the Neville saw 300,000 visitors.
Whether the future of the Neville holds more blockbusters remains to be seen, but the hope is that the museum becomes less reactive and more proactive.
“We’re at a really exciting time. This world is changing at a rapid pace,” says Lemke, who assumed her position in October 2013.
Lemke says the museum is formulating a master plan with the help of an outside agency that will have the right blend for how to tell the museum’s story and raise funds while seeking an active way to engage the public. The typical lifespan for presenting a museum’s core exhibition is 20 years and the Neville is now at 31 years.
“The big opportunity we have for change is looking at our core storyline,” says Lemke. “It’s always a delicate balance of attendance and revenue.”
She also is hoping for a restructuring of museum artifacts.
“There are a lot more pieces in storage than there are on display,” says Lemke of the Neville’s archives. Her goal is to put them online in a meaningful way that engages visitors to come to the museum as well.
“I would love to see some of those collections that are in the ‘vault’ rotated out and advertised,” says Linda Rauscher, current president of the Green Bay Art Colony, formerly the Green Bay Art Club. “I think the general public doesn’t know what’s in the vault.”
To celebrate the 100 years of the museum, a year-long celebration was kicked off in January.
This is just one of many exhibits the Neville has hosted over the past century.
“The museum has had wonderful exhibits over the years,” says Troy Streckenbach, Brown County county executive. “The Packer Hall of Fame exhibit that has been there for almost a year has been a wonderful exhibit and brought a highlight to the area.” Visitors can catch “Touchdown! Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, Inc. at the Neville Public Museum” until March 15.
“The exhibit that was the most stunning and risk-taking was ‘The Mysteries of Egypt,’” adds Kramer Rock, Neville Public Museum Foundation chair emeritus. “It was quite a draw. That was probably the most significant exhibit memory I have.”
A challenge with the Neville is finding exhibits that will fit into its existing structure, which offers just over 17,000-square-feet of exhibition space, with almost half of it occupied by the core exhibition.
Lemke has been working with Evergreen Exhibitions, a provider of traveling museum exhibits based in Texas, to break up some exhibits and bring them to the Neville. Two such exhibits on the docket are “Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America” coming May 23 and “EXTREME DEEP: Mission to the Abyss” beginning Sept. 9. Other programming also is planned. Visit nevillepublicmuseum.org for details.
“I hope that the Neville continues to be relevant to all community members,” Rock says. “I hope that our world doesn’t become so introspective that they’d rather stay at home and watch a virtual tour of the Neville on their computer instead of seeing, smelling and touching the things at the museum.”
Lemke encourages patrons to be a part of the Neville’s future.
“If you haven’t been to the Neville in a while, come back, have a conversation, we’d love to hear what you think,” she shares.