Opinion: Historical society upgrades are long overdue

Center

Roger Wollstadt

The Montana Historical Society in Helena. Gov. Steve Bullock is asking the Legislature for funding to upgrade and expand the 65-year-old facility.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s request to the current Legislature to expand and upgrade the 65-year-old Montana Historical Society facility has been misrepresented by some as unneeded “pork. “ This characterization is both wrong and ridiculous.

Fortunately, however, members of both political parties recognize the real and critical need to care for and provide access to priceless collections belonging to the people of Montana and provide continuing economic development—jobs during construction and development of enhanced tourism dollars in the future.

Montana Territory was created by the signature of President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. The Montana Historical Society was created the following year by one of the first acts of our first Territorial Legislature. It is the second oldest state historical society west of the Mississippi. That fact, and that it was prominently housed in our state Capitol building after its completion in 1901, shows the deep respect for Montana’s history of our state’s early citizens. It is a respect we believe is still shared by Montana citizens of today.

It was 1949 when Gov. John Bonner, with support of the Sons and Daughters of the Montana Pioneers and the state’s veterans organizations, persuaded the Legislature to put the final funding in place for the Veterans’ and Pioneers’ Memorial Building, the current home of the Montana Historical Society. Now this 65 year-old facility is outdated and in constant need of repair.

The ability to provide appropriate environmental conditions for important artifacts, irreplaceable works of art and archival material gets more difficult with each passing year. Exhibition and research space is severely restricted. The need for the proposed Historical Society “Heritage Center” project is real and indisputable.

Sadly, the Montana Heritage Center has been rejected by the past five legislatures, last session by only one vote. Surrounding states have invested in their heritage facilities and are reaping the benefits. A recent study by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana estimated the Montana Heritage Center would have a comparable economic impact on Montana, generating an additional 78,000 history related tourist visits each year, with spending by these visitors of $7.5 million.

Not only is the investment in safeguarding and showcasing Montana’s history necessary, it is an investment with a real economic return. Montana has a powerful opportunity to invest in sustained economic development in a vital driver of Montana’s economy—tourism now and into the future.

The Montana Historical Society has been dubbed the “Smithsonian of the West.” Its collections have become even more historically significant, complete and valuable over time. Montana can do a far better job with our priceless historical assets than it is doing. It is therefore very important to contact your state senators and representatives, and strongly direct them to vote for the Montana Heritage Center.

More than any other project it will serve our sense of pride in our shared Montana heritage. It will address the extreme and pressing need for improved conditions. It will bring untapped rewards from the resource of our history.

Our ancestors, men and women, immigrants and Native Americans, rich and poor, progressives and conservatives, all made Montana history together. Our history is our unifying and common bond. We share it equally and together. We urge you to direct our Legislature to meld our Montana pride of heritage with Economic Development.

Just as our parents and grandparents made their commitment and investment in Montana history, it is now our turn to pass on to our children and grandchildren what was passed on to us.

Bob Brown, of Whitefish, is president of the Montana Historical Society Board of Trustees. This piece was also signed by trustees Janene Caywood andKent Kleinkopf, both of Missoula; Jim Court, Cliff Edwards and Thomas Minckler, all of Billings; Ed Jasmin, Helena; Steve Lozar, Polson; Thomas Nygard, Bozeman; Jude Sheppard, Chinook; Crystal Wong Shors, Helena; and James Utterback, Helena.

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