When she was a child, Julia Brunson would run around the European Village at the Milwaukee Public Museum and peek through the windows of the replica homes representing different nationalities, cultures and ethnicities in amazement of what life was like in a distant place generations ago.
“I would go there and I would see the Jewish home. And it would feel amazing to see my ethnic roots, my religious roots being represented in the village,” she said. “It’s a point of pride as well as a point of learning.”
That is why when the Milwaukee Public Museum announced that it was moving into a new location in 2026, she grew immensely concerned about the future of the European Village and the Streets of Old Milwaukee, two popular exhibits with generations of Milwaukeeans and tourists.
As a result, Brunson, 25, and fellow Milwaukeean Alexandra Hahnfeld took action. Brunson began a petition drive to save the Streets of Old Milwaukee while Hahnfeld, 25, began her own petition to save the European Village, a set of buildings and houses representing 33 cultures, including a Jewish home that is filled with genuine Jewish artifacts and period pieces from the early 1900s.
The exhibit holds a special place in Hahnfeld’s heart. Her grandfather, Dr. Lazar Brkich, an immigrant from Serbia who came to Milwaukee with “no family and no money,” she said, eventually became an historian at the museum. He created and curated the exhibit, using artifacts and items that he received as donations from families and obtained during trips to different European countries.
“We have this piece of history that my grandpa created that we can go and visit and we can celebrate him in that way. To even think of a wrecking ball tearing it all down is really disheartening to my family,” said Hahnfeld, who has garnered more than 875 signatures on her petition.
His vision was to put on display the origins that many Milwaukee families came from and to celebrate different cultures and diversities, including those of the Jewish community, Hahnfeld said.
“My grandpa thought that it was important to represent Jewish people in the European village, because there were so many Jewish people in a lot of those European countries,” she said. “He would always say that America is going to become one big melting pot, all the cultures are going to blend together.”
Plans are in the works to move the museum to a new building in the Deer District in Downtown Milwaukee. The new facility will be called the Future Museum and will open in 2026, the museum said on its website.
Madeline Anderson, the Milwaukee Public Museum director of earned media, told Fox6 news last month that entire exhibits can’t be moved to the new site, apparently referring to the Streets or European exhibits. The news station also reported in January that Anderson said, “These exhibits, these buildings and other murals, those are painted on or built into this structure. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t just bring them over to the new building.”
The exhibit design process for the new location is “still fluid and will be for some time,” a museum spokesperson said in a statement for the Chronicle.
“While there has been speculation around the Future Museum exhibits, we have not officially shared our exhibit plans yet,” the spokesperson said, adding that the museum will make public a sampling of exhibits this spring, which will give the community members a sense of the future museum’s general direction.
“We will share additional details as they are finalized throughout this long and complex process,” they said.
The European Village provides an educational opportunity to learn more about different cultures, an important aspect especially given the current spread of hate speech, xenophobia and attacks on minorities in the United States and around the globe.
“If you want to learn more about these ethnic groups, or these religions, or these populations that you’re not familiar with, you’re literally looking into the window and seeing them breaking bread, making dinner and putting their kids to sleep. It’s the most humanizing, normalizing thing you can see in that museum,” Brunson said, describing how museumgoers can look into the village’s homes through their windows.
Despite what the museum has said publicly about the future of the exhibits, the prospect of losing them in the future is disheartening for Brunson and Hahnfeld.
“There’s so many people in Milwaukee who have this generational experience at the museum, who are crestfallen or heartbroken,” Brunson said, noting that her petition has been signed online by more than 8,800 people. “I think what’s really disappointing for most people is that the change is happening in a very opaque manner.”