What do you call a museum that's sorta not a museum? If you're the Port Washington Historical Society, you call your new hands-on Lake Michigan experience the Port Exploreum.
Located in a vintage downtown Port Washington cream city brick building that was days away from a date with the wrecking ball, the Port Exploreum offers three stories of permanent and changing exhibits that focus on Lake Michigan, with an eye of course, on Port Washington history, too.
The Exploreum, 118 N. Franklin St., opened in April with its first exhibit, "The Man Behind the Camera: Vern Biever," focusing on the Port lensman who captured decades of Packers history with his cameras.
Now, the changing exhibit space looks out at the lake – both figuratively and quite literally via its windows and outdoor deck – in "Nothin' But Nets," which examines the commercial fishing industry that built Port Washington.
The show features artifacts, photographs and informative interactives like a screen that plays oral history videos and an electronic table that offers up troves of historical information from local newspapers and other sources.
But the main feature is the Lake Michigan Experience, an interactive electronic table that is fed data on lake bed depths, shipwrecks, current weather and the real-time movement of commercial shipping on the lake and more to create a vibrant and engaging look at Lake Michigan.
"This table is remarkable because it showcases one of our Great Lakes in a way that's never been done before," says Executive Director Wayne Chrusciel. "By adding it to our current line-up of technologically advanced exhibits, the Port Exploreum secures its position as a unique, world-class, family-focused museum."
The museum – sorry, the exploreum – exists in large part because of a single anonymous donor, who stepped in to save the 1907 building just before it was due to be razed.
"In late spring of 2012, this building was slated to be torn down," says Chrusciel, "and a gentlemen who grew up here but lives out on the East Coast said, 'I can't let that happen.' So, he called the historical society and said, 'I want you to buy this building and make it a museum. I'll write you a check for a million dollars.'
"So, the society took the money and appointed a small task force and we took the building and turned it into a museum."
But they didn't want to call it a museum, says Chrusciel.
"Once he gave us the money, he gave us his vision of what he wanted it to be. He wanted something that would appeal to young families because he had young family. They love going to museums. They live in New York City. So, they obviously saw the best and he wanted something more than just a small-time museum. But kids might normally run away from that, so we purposely didn't include the word museum in the name because we thought that would be a turnoff to kids."
And really, the Exploreum isn't exactly a museum in the traditional sense. There are some artifacts, but not really all that many. Instead there are lots of interactive games, videos, the electronic tables, boat models and more – the lower level mimics the deck of a lake schooner – that help bring the history and the ecology of Lake Michigan alive for kids (and adults) of all ages.
The building itself is quite striking. Outside, you'll notice the two-story building's stone facade with columns between the second floor windows and the arches above the entry and the large first floor window. Stand back far enough and you'll see that across the alley is the building's mirror-image twin.
Step inside and there's a striking hanging sculpture that spins. It's called "The Mariners' Globe" and is the work of Bill Prince and Vance Coisman.