''Think of it as Europe in 7,000 square feet,'' says Lazar Brkich. His arm gestures toward a cluster of cottages emerging from the twilight gloom around us. Indeed, from the look of them, we could be in Ostrobothnia, Finland, and Maarken, the Netherlands, and Gabrovo, Bulgaria, at the end of an autumn day.
We could be, but we're not. We're standing in an exhibition area at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Still, the resemblance between this scene and ones we might find in any of 33 European country villages is strictly intentional.
This village is small. You can walk its length in several giant strides. There is a square, complete with fountain and trees with fall-painted leaves. And the one-room cottages face off across walkways, their windows friendly eyes, inviting looks inside.
The house immediately in front of us is English, a kind of mini-Tudor in design, two-storied, whitewashed, half-timbered, filled with antiques.
Across a brick walk - ''As if across the English Channel,'' says Shirley Marine, public affairs officer for the museum, with a laugh - is a slate-roofed, stone cottage typical of Brittany. It is the home and shop of the local baker.
The door to the Polish house has a special character. It is carved in a floral design that is repeated many times over inside the room. There are flowers on the ceiling, the stove; in framed paintings and the frame of a mirror; on the headboard of the bed and a chest at the bed's foot; even in the skirt of the woman of the house.
There's a rugged strength in the stone and plaster of the Irish house, where a grandmother knits and spins tales.
The Russian house is an icon shop from a region around Ivanovo, about 300 miles east of Moscow. It's a province noted for its icon art; at the turn of the century the people of the area were making and shipping more than 2 million icons a year.
It's the turn of the century - actually the years between 1875 and 1925 - that this village depicts. Those are the years that saw a great wave of immigrants to Milwaukee.
''The majority of Milwaukeeans are of European descent,'' says Dr. Brkich, director of the project; ''yet, until European Villlage was opened, that part of the world was not represented in the museum in any meaningful way.''
That it is now is in part because of changing ideas in museum exhibits: ''If this (had been planned) 50 years ago,'' wrote Irene Hanson, former librarian of the museum, in a booklet published when the exhibit opened in late 1979, ''no doubt an area would have been designated 'Europe,' and case after case would have been lined up and filled with artifacts carefully grouped and labeled.''
But the museum had had a great deal of success with a ''walk through'' exhibit built in the mid-1960s, called ''Streets of Old Milwaukee,'' so in the late 1970s, when this one was designed, a walk-through ''European Village'' in honor of Milwaukee's immigrants seemed a good idea.
Not all immigrants to the city came from small towns, of course, but many did. Too, many of their descendants seem to identify with the folk culture of the areas their ancestors came from, the costumes, music, dance, and art.
For instance, representing Belgium is a house from the Brugge area. On a soft evening, the oil lamp is lighted, showing a lacemaker's handiwork.
A toymaker displays his carved-wood creations in the German cottage. He's from the region around Nuremberg.
There is an island Greek house, typical of Skyros. The sleeping loft inside overlooks a corner hearth used for cooking and warmth and a loom set up for weaving.
Like the Engish house, the Danish one is half-timbered, but this one is of red brick. The thatched roof provides an old-fashioned covering for the clean lines of Danish design.
The cottages are built to three-quarters scale. Brkich and one of the museum's artists traveled extensively in Europe - ''Outside the cities and industrial regions, house types exist much as they were for centuries'' - sketching, measuring, photographing.
The furnishings and costumes and decorations come from Milwaukee's attics, from local ethnic organizations. In the Norwegian house there's a wood-carved lintel from a cabin in northern Wisconsin. There's an 18th-century wardrobe from central Illinois in the Swedish house. And museums in Zagreb and Belgrade donated items to the Yugoslav (Slovene) and Serbian houses.
Milwaukee's Public Museum has fine collections of American Indian, African, and Pre-Columbian artifacts. You can see man's relationship to his urban environment here and come nose to nose with a dinosaur, journey beneath the ocean, and on it, on the deck of the Godspeed on a trip to the New World.
And don't forget to take a stroll through the old one, as many visitors to the city and even residents are doing.
''This is a town where ethnic awareness is alive,'' Brkich says. That seems to hold true even for the generation furthest removed from its old-country past:
''When kids come, every one runs to the house portraying his own background . . . each kid looks for his own first, then he looks at the rest,'' says Miss Marine.
Milwaukee Public Museum, at 800 West Wells Street, is open daily except some holidays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.