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Wisconsin Historical Museum exterior (copy)

The Wisconsin Historical Museum currently occupies the site of a former hardware store on a corner of Capitol Square. 


On his final night as Wisconsin governor 17 years ago, Tommy Thompson danced the polka in front of a packed Assembly chamber and proposed a $75 million “world-class history center” to be built in downtown Madison.

His dance moves made the nightly news and appeared in the State Journal the next morning, when he resigned to become President George W. Bush’s secretary of Health and Human Services.

It was a fitting end to his energetic 14 years in office. But the museum never gained much traction once he was gone.

Fast forward to 2018, and Thompson is again touting the project, this time with another former governor, Jim Doyle. The two men, one a Republican, the other a Democrat have agreed to lead a $50 million fundraising campaign to revive the idea and make it bigger and better.

The society is pursuing a $120 million, 100,000-square-foot museum that would more than double exhibition space topped by $80 million to $120 million private development with 200,000 to 250,000 square feet of commercial and residential space.

Even more significant, Gov. Scott Walker has agreed to deliver $70 million of additional money if the goal for private donations is reached by Sept. 30.

So get the campaign going, and pitch in if you can. This exciting project deserves broad support. It will help our state remember, celebrate and learn from its past, while creating a new attraction and encouraging private development on the Capitol Square.

The existing Wisconsin Historical Museum is cramped and dreary. And the block the museum now sits on, at the corner of State, West Mifflin and North Carroll streets, is ripe for improvement.

The area has been a trouble spot Downtown, attracting transients and requiring police attention. Remaking the corner into a vibrant attraction would complement the nearby Overture Center, Central Library and redeveloped 100 blocks of North Fairchild and State streets.

Preservationists are assessing the buildings that might have to come down to make way for the project. An analysis by the city should help inform that debate.

But the landmark Grace Episcopal Church and Hovde tower along West Washington Avenue will definitely stay where they are, according to a general plan unveiled by the Historical Society and adjacent landowners Hovde Properties and Fred Mohs.

The proposal should take shape in the coming months. But for now, the general concept looks like a winner.

The $120 million, 100,000-square-foot museum would provide learning, meeting and flexible spaces with modern technology. And instead of so many solid walls, the new museum would include large windows with scenic views of the Capitol building.

The total cost, including private housing and offices, could reach $240 million.

Thompson last month called the museum his longtime dream. Doyle envisions “something really special.”

Wisconsin deserves an engaging and inspiring history center to tell its story.