Wisconsin has several unique museums that make wonderful venues for meetings and events. Here are some of the best, featuring the state’s expansive maritime and shipbuilding history, famous art collections, botanical gardens and a Civil War Museum that relays the personal stories of people in the Midwest who fought in the war.
Door County Maritime Museum
Door County Maritime Museum is located on Sturgeon Bay’s western waterfront between two downtown bridges. The museum is open year round and preserves the maritime history of the Great Lakes, with a primary focus on Door County. In the past year or so, the museum added the 10-story Jim Kress Maritime Lighthouse Tower, which offers interactive educational exhibits that highlight the people and maritime history of the area. The tower also gives everyone, regardless of physical abilities, the opportunity to experience what a lighthouse is like, including the incredible views.
The museum also added a second story that expanded the legacy museum and museum store and added new meeting and event space. The Captain’s Quarters includes a catering galley and seating capacity of about 60. The Harder Family Deck overlooks the west waterfront promenade and Tug John Purves, a restored 103-year-old Great Lakes tugboat that is the largest artifact in the museum. It is available for tours May to October. Many of the docents that lead the tours are part of the team that spent five years and 35,000 hours restoring the tugboat from when it was received by the museum in 2003.
A new exhibit was added to the second floor landing of the museum in February 2020. “Built for Battle: Sturgeon Bay Ships in World War II” highlights warships constructed in Door County and the experiences of their crews during the 1940s.
The Bridge Room is a smaller meeting and event space, and there are opportunities to host events at the top of the Jim Kress Maritime Lighthouse Tower.
History Museum at the Castle
The History Museum at the Castle was originally a Masonic temple built in 1923 in the Norman Revival style. Its rough-hewn stone, vaulted ceilings, heavy beams and leaded windows are reminiscent of medieval castles and churches. Located in the heart of downtown Appleton, the building was converted in 1985 into a museum focusing on the history of the Appleton area.
One of the most popular exhibits at the museum, “AKA Houdini,” showcases the life and career of famous escape artist Harry Houdini, who spent some of his childhood in Appleton. The exhibit takes visitors through his childhood, early career and rise to fame, and guests also have the opportunity to learn and perform some of his iconic illusions, including Metamorphosis. Another large exhibit space hosts temporary exhibits that change out every couple of months.
The museum has two main event spaces: the Siekman Room, which is located off of the museum’s lobby, and Ogilvie Hall. The historic Siekman Room features large, mullioned windows, terrazzo floors and two sets of French doors. It can host 50 guests at tables and 100 guests lecture-style. Ogilvie Hall originally was the main meeting room for the Waverly Masons and features heavy beamed ceilings, antique light fixtures, a Masonic mural and an intimate stage. A 1926 Austin pipe organ is available for use with the room’s rental. The space can host 120 guests seated and 165 guests lecture-style.
Groups that rent space at the museum are welcome to tour its exhibits or incorporate educational programming or workshops related to its exhibits.
Civil War Museum
Kenosha’s Civil War Museum opened in 2008 to commemorate the more than 1 million troops that came from Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa that went south to fight. No Civil War battles were fought in Wisconsin, but the mayor of Kenosha at the time worked closely with Carthage College to find a way to make its private collection of Civil War artifacts more accessible to the public.
The museum houses that collection, and its interactive exhibits are built around the personal stories of the people who fought in the war as well as the men, women and children who stayed behind. A 360-degree film, “Seeing the Elephant,” shown on an 11-foot-tall screen, immerses visitors in an actual Civil War battle, marching, training and fighting with a Midwestern Civil War regiment.
Groups wanting to host meetings or events at the museum have many options from two to 200 people. There are conference rooms that can be set up boardroom style and larger spaces that can host seminars, conferences and evening events. The Outdoor Terrace is popular, overlooking Lake Michigan and the lighthouse. The indoor spaces include audiovisual equipment, and all but one of them have windows overlooking Lake Michigan or the harbor. Groups that host events at the museum are also welcome to tour its exhibits, either on their own or with a guide.
The Kenosha Public Museum, which is a natural history, science and fine art museum, is next door. It also can host groups up to 200 people.
The Paine Art Center and Gardens
The Paine Art Center and Gardens is an estate, art museum and historic mansion that sits on nearly four acres of botanical gardens. It was the dream project of lumber baron Nathan Paine and his wife, Jessie Kimberly, the daughter of the co-founder of Kimberly-Clark. From the beginning, the couple wanted to design an estate showcasing exceptional architecture, furnishings, art and natural beauty that would one day be open to the public for educational and cultural purposes.
Construction of the mansion began in 1927, with the exterior completed by 1930. Because of the Great Depression, work stopped on the house in 1932 and wasn’t completed until 1948, a year after Nathan passed away. The rooms and hallways of the mansion display many items from the Paines’ collection of fine art and decorative objects, including French Barbizon and American landscape paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The gardens also feature several sculptures.
Groups can host meetings up to 200 people for events in the mansion, carriage house or conservatory. Outdoor spaces are also available for weddings and special events.
The gardens offer a beautiful backdrop year-round, with a dedicated horticulture team creating seasonal displays throughout the year. Groups meeting at the center can arrange docent-led tours of the mansion or gardens or, as well as talks from the curator.
Wisconsin Maritime Museum
The foremost authority on Wisconsin’s maritime history, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum got its start in 1969 as the Manitowoc Submarine Memorial Association. It has since expanded its mission to cover the maritime heritage of the Manitowoc-Two Rivers area, the Great Lakes and the submarines built in the area during World War II.
One of the museum’s top exhibits is the USS Cobia, a submarine that was launched in 1943 from Groton, Connecticut, and was responsible for sinking 13 Japanese vessels in 1944 on her first of six war patrols. In July 1944, the sub attacked an enemy convoy heading for Iwo Jima and sank two vessels, including a troop transport carrying 28 tanks. The submarine was brought to Manitowoc as a memorial to submariners and was incorporated into the museum in 1986 as a National Historic Landmark.
Groups interested in maritime history can rent several spaces at the museum, including the 3,100-square-foot rooftop deck that offers panoramic views of Lake Michigan and downtown Manitowoc. The Riverview Room is 1,800 square feet that can be divided into three separate rooms. It can host groups as large as 150 theater-style or up to 100 people for a catered event. The facility has cutting edge technology and is ideal for multimedia presentations. Riverview Room is on the museum’s main level and overlooks the Manitowoc River and the USS Cobia. The museum’s boardroom and theater are available for smaller groups between 16 and 35 people.