Opinion: Preserving Montana history is no ‘pork’ project

Bob Brown

Bob Brown

As the rhetoric ramps up leading to the election and the next legislative session, so does the finger-pointing at the failure of the past legislature to pass meaningful infrastructure funding in the final form of Senate Bill 416.

After passing the Senate by a vote of 47–3, SB 416 failed by one vote of the necessary two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives. The bill had the support of 51 of 88 Republicans, 62 Democrats, and Gov. Steve Bullock. Yet it failed to reach final passage.

Some people now seek to identify the inclusion of the renovation and expansion of the Montana Historical Society facility—the Montana Heritage Center—as the explanation for the defeat of the infrastructure bill.  These people describe the Montana Heritage Center as “unnecessary,” “a pet project,” and “pork.” We find that an astonishing claim.

The Montana Historical Society, created in 1865, has faithfully and assiduously collected, preserved and assured access for Montana citizens to the historic documents, newspapers, photographs, artifacts and art of Montana’s history for more than 150 years. The current home of the Montana Historical Society, the Veterans and Pioneers Memorial Building, stands directly adjacent to the state Capitol. Funded by the 1949 Legislature and opened in 1953, the current structure has long since become dysfunctional for the stewardship and appropriate exhibition of Montana’s treasures and for the invaluable research conducted by scholars and citizens alike.

Recognized as the “Smithsonian of the West,” the Montana Historical Society must severely constrain its service and educational programs to commemorate and celebrate Montana’s rich history. The Montana Heritage Center, designed to improve these conditions, has come before every legislative session since 2005, having secured limited bonding authority in that session.

However, a small minority of legislators has prevented approval of the necessary changes to preserve and share with all citizens our exciting and important history. In our view, the preservation of the records, artifacts and art of our past represents a duty and responsibility of the current generation of Montanans to succeeding generations. Referring to this generational obligation as “pork” demeans all Montanans and their heritage.

The Montana Heritage Center project responds to the imperative to protect, expand, preserve and share the growing collections assembled by the Montana Historical Society.  As an infrastructure project, construction of the Montana Heritage Center will reduce the risk of losing or damaging the irreplaceable history of past generations so that future generations of Montanans can enjoy and learn from this inheritance.

The current facility, quite appropriate for its time, has reached the state that a catastrophic failure looms, given the cramped conditions and the rising demands placed on the society. The Board of Trustees has developed the project to assure that the Montana Heritage Center will again allow all Montanans to celebrate our state, our history and our distinctive culture and way of life.

We, the members of the Board of Trustees, collectively encourage those who remain uncertain about the inclusion of the Montana Heritage Center in the legislative infrastructure package to visit the current historic but inadequate facility to learn of the work, view the collections, investigate the issues and see for themselves the shortcomings of an aging building, the preservation of which we have integrated into the project.

We invite them to join the many thousands who visit the facility each year. The Montana Historical Society, as the Montana Heritage Center, belongs to all Montanans, not to those of us charged to oversee the society and the center.  As citizens of this great state, we all have a stake in our common history, regardless of race, ethnicity, date of arrival or political philosophy.  Without question, our common history and shared culture richly deserve respect and thoughtful consideration, not the derogatory labeling of the past few months.

In the months ahead, we invite all Montana citizens to join us in refuting and rejecting all misleading and inaccurate statements about the Montana Heritage Center and the Montana Historical Society and the impact of their vital work and statewide reach.

We, the society trustees, function as your servants, the stewards of a celebrated heritage and a wonderful collection of records, artifacts and art revealing that heritage. We respectfully urge all Montanans to protect our common legacy.

Montana Historical Society Board of Trustees

Bob Brown, President – Whitefish              Thomas Nygard, Vice President – Bozeman
Kent Kleinkopf, Secretary – Missoula          Janene Caywood – Missoula
Jim Court – Billings                                        George Dennison – Missoula
Cliff Edwards – Billings                                  Ed Jasmin – Helena
Charles Johnson – Helena                             Steve Lozar – Polson
Thomas Minckler – Billings                          Jude Sheppard – Chinook
Crystal Wong Shors – Helena                       James Utterback – Helena

Leave a Reply