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Washington’s history museums may survive yet

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on April 2, 2011 at 4:19 pm with 3 Comments »
April 1, 2011 4:21 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Fingers crossed, but it’s looking like the Legislature won’t chuck Washington’s heritage out the window for the sake of minimal savings during a distressed economy.

Gov. Chris Gregoire had proposed to mothball the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma and the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane to pick up what amounts to budget dust in the face of a multibillion-dollar shortfall.

The absurdity of the move is illustrated by its effect on the Tacoma museum. The governor wasn’t proposing to raze the structure on Pacific Avenue; her budget would have closed its doors but kept the building intact and protected at a cost of $1 million a year.

The history museum’s advocates estimate that – with the help of local resources – they could keep it open to the public for another $900,000 or so.

For the lack of $900,000, the governor’s budget would close a $40.8 million institution that attracts more than 80,000 people a year and has helped introduce 330,000 children to the historical foundations of modern Washington. That’s a terrible sacrifice for so little money.

The idea was to close the museum for two years, but once a museum is closed, it becomes very easy to keep it closed. At best, its disappearance from the radar of education and tourism – and the loss of relationships with its donors – would do very long-lasting damage.

Not even during the Great Depression and two world wars did the Legislature carry out such an attack on the repositories of Washington’s roots.

Fortunately, key lawmakers appear to be finding ways to keep enough funding intact to let the Tacoma and Spokane museums survive until better times. Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, have been champions in the Senate.

In the House, budget vice chairwoman Jeannie Darnielle, D-Tacoma, has emerged as a crucial supporter. Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, has been especially helpful on the other side of the aisle.

Darnielle has proposed the creation of a Department of Heritage, Arts and Culture to administer the history museums, the State Library and other cultural institutions, presumably with greater efficiency and at lower combined cost. That idea deserves a good hearing.

The brutality of the fiscal crisis also argues for diverting some money from an account earmarked for the future construction of a new Heritage Center in Olympia. It would be insane to shutter a $40.8 million cultural destination while piling up money for one that hasn’t been built.

Leave a comment Comments → 3
  1. steilacoomtaxpayer says:

    OK, so the editorial board is willing to call the museum a “cultural destination”. Would you please consider sending someone down to it to experience this “40.8 Million Dollar Institution” with the purpose of printing an honest, objective review of the the displays (they really aren’t a collection)?

  2. History museums have had to become a combination of entertainment venues, arenas for learning and repositories of collections for scholarly study. I think this museum does an average to above average job at the first two purposes. Since I am not a scholar I don’t know about the third.

    I don’t know if there is a pay-to-play agreement between the universities in Washington and the museum, but I would suggest that universities have a lot more money than the museum right now to pay for historical research.

    I take visitors to the museum, and it gives them a really good overview of Washington State. The exhibits were right in line with the best at the time they were installed, but newer museums are even more interactive than this one, so the “kids” (adults and children) who require more entertainment than learning might find it a little stiff. Some of their special exhibits have been terrific.

    I’m glad this museum will be saved, and I hope that when the economy recovers we can continue to invest in preserving and telling the story about the history of Washington State.

  3. jimkingjr says:

    What should NOT be done is rob a fund paid into by businesses who agreed to fund a particular project- the Heritage Center- with higher fees. That money is being raised to, primarily, meet the archival needs of the state. Those fees were supported and are being paid for that specific purpose. Museum advocates need to swear off theft as a means of getting what they want. These raids on dedicated accounts need to stop.

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