In 1915, nine members of the Green Bay Art Club held a one-week exhibit of rare and historically significant objects from the Green Bay and De Pere area. The exhibit was held in the basement of the local library. It was so popular that the Club decided the community needed a permanent museum. In December 1915, the Art Club incorporated as the Board of the new Green Bay Public Museum. The museum started in the Assembly Room in the Library. The museum thrived, soon filling several rooms. The museum's mission was to “bringing the world” to Green Bay. The collections included important local artifacts as well as items from around the world.
By 1923, the Library had run out of space and informed the museum that it was time to move to their own building. In November 1925, Mr. and Mrs. George Mason of New York City donated $60,000 to build a museum. They asked for two things in return. The City of Green Bay must give sufficient means for the museum’s proper maintenance. The museum must be named as a memorial to Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Neville’s "work towards civic betterment in Green Bay.” Mrs. Mason was Mrs. Neville’s daughter. The City agreed, accepted the gift, and the new Neville Public Museum opened to the public on July 23, 1927.
Neville Public Museum Foundation
The Neville Public Museum Foundation owned the collection and managed the museum. One city councilman sat on the Museum Board. The City paid all operating expenses, including salaries. The museum’s open collections policy was not officially changed until a new museum mission statement was adopted in 1986. The new mission statement narrowed the Neville’s focus to Northeast Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
In 1962, the City approached Brown County asking that the County pay half of the expenses of the museum. At that time, half of the visitors were County residents living outside of the City. The County agreed. The City and County both provided operating costs, and each had one representative on the Foundation Board. Now, the Foundation owned the collections and managed the museum. The employees were still city employees. The City owned the building and paid half of its support, and the County paid the remaining half of the expenses.
Expansion plans were drawn up in the 1950s, but it was not until the 1970s when space was at a premium that moves were made towards expansion. Feasibility studies were conducted. The Board was strengthened by adding influential members. Membership was opened to everyone (membership had been by invitation only). A campaign was conducted to convince taxpayers that a new museum building was needed.
In 1980, a County-wide referendum passed with 66% of voters in favor of building a new museum. Paid for by the City, the County and the Foundation, it opened to the public on April 9, 1983. With the new building came new management arrangements. The City stepped down. The County took over most of the financial responsibility. They also took ownership of the building and collections. Employees became County staff. The Foundation agreed to continue to raise funds for future exhibits and programs. The strong public/private partnership between the County and the Foundation continues today. The Foundation contributes to the museum’s budget for exhibits and programs. The amount varies, depending on the exhibit schedule for a given year.
A Governing Board was established in 1986. This board reports to the County Board of Supervisors’ Education and Recreation Committee. It ensures that the museum is well managed and appropriately funded.
In 2004, for the first time in 89 years, the museum started charging admission. This ensured the continued financial stability of the institution. The museum expanded its hours and added a new sign, and more sculptures to the grounds. The museum also created a new program space, called the "Discovery Room."
The museum continues to explore and develop new programming. Programs include Explorer Wednesdays, Summer Camps, and Dinner Programs. The Neville Public Museum Astronomical Society meets on the first Wednesday of the month. The Neville Public Museum Geology Club meets on the third Tuesday of the month. The museum partners with the Green Bay International Film Society for their Film Series.