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Washington’s history museums may survive yet

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on April 2, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
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.

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