Representative Dennis Lenz (R-Billings) has hit upon a genius idea for funding a new building for the Montana Historical Society…sell up to $50 million of the collection – art, artifacts, and archival material. Anyone up for a garage sale of Montana’s history? As improbable as it may sound, this isn’t the first proposal of this kind we’ve heard. And it doesn’t help when Speaker of the House, Austin Knudsen, suggests at the start of the legislative session that capital projects aren’t infrastructure. Maybe putting people to work from Helena and the surrounding area is somehow bad for the economy. Or perhaps adding to the world class reputation of the Montana Historical just isn’t quite cricket but if it was located somewhere else it might be doable. Former Governor Schweitzer suggested moving the historical society to Butte during his second term but that just seemed like an embarrassment of riches for a community that has its own proud history and a big toxic pit to boot.
Since the initial romance began in 2005 with the passage of the bonding bill to help fund a new building for the MHS, the legislature has consistently left this proud and venerable institution standing at the altar. Despite the continued slight, it’s hard to imagine a groundswell of support for HB 594, which violates current Montana Statute, the Montana Historical Society Code of Conduct, and the Code of Ethics of the American Association of Museums not to mention the loss of accreditation by the American Association of Museums as well as its status as a Smithsonian Affiliate. All which pale in comparison to the violation of trust the MHS has earned over the last 150 plus years. Such an action would destroy the integrity and reputation of a state institution that has served faithfully since its inception.
One can hope HB 594 dies a swift death in committee and that the legislature seriously considers the state of its premiere history organization. Are they so parsimonious as to continue to strangle the life from an organization dedicated to the preservation of our history both noble and ignoble. This feels a lot like the old “history” cliché, those who refuse to study their history are doomed to repeat it.