Montana history deserves a home

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What price does one put on history?

Right now Montana lawmakers are wrestling with that question, specifically as it relates to providing partial funding for a proposed $44.3 million renovation and expansion of the Montana Historical Society museum in Helena.

As the keepers of the state’s precious cultural artifacts, the Historical Society has been asking legislators for the last seven legislative sessions to consider passing a bill that would allow for bonding authority or another way of paying for what would be called the Montana Heritage Center.

Currently, historic collections stored in the center’s leaky basement are at risk, Historical Society Director Bruce Whittenberg pointed out during a recent visit with the Inter Lake’s editorial board. Space is at a premium in the aging facility, too. As much as 90 percent of the state artifacts are not on display.

A new building would add 65,604 square feet to the existing 93,252 square feet. The new facility would include museum exhibits, educational space and event center, outdoor courtyard and amphitheater, as well as appropriate storage for the museum’s collection. The renovation of the current facility, the 1950 Veterans and ­Pioneers Memorial Building, would expand the research center and library, ­double the size of the C.M. Russell Gallery and add much-needed classrooms for educational programs.

A Billings lawmaker proposed a bill — thankfully that piece of legislation has been tabled and is probably dead — that would require the Historical Society trustees to sell off enough historic artifacts to pay for the expansion of the Montana Heritage Center. As Whittenberg correctly pointed out, the society is the steward of the state’s collections, not a broker or dealer willing to peddle the state’s prized possession to the highest bidder.

There again, what price do we put on history?

A bill sponsored by Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, seems to offer the best bet we’ve heard to date to generate the money needed for the project. Her bill would provide partial funding (the Historical Society is raising $10 million privately) by raising the state bed tax one-half of 1 percent for 10 years. It would also create a grant program for other museums and historic buildings across Montana.

When tourism promoters and lodging representatives criticized the bill, saying it needs to do more to promote tourism in Montana, Cohenour offered amendments that would raise the bed tax by 1 percent instead of 0.5 percent and would limit the Heritage Center funding and grant program to five instead of 10 years. It further would make the additional 1 percent tax permanent, with all revenue going to state tourism promotion after five years.

Last week the bill was tabled in the House Appropriations Committee, but we hope it’s resurrected for further consideration of amendments that make it seem doable.

Yes, Cohenour’s proposal is an extra tax, but since visitors would pay the lion’s share of the additional bed tax the burden would be minimal to Montana citizens. The lodging industry and other state groups support the amended bill.

Time and tide wait for no man, and they certainly don’t wait for historic treasures that could be ruined in a leaking, aging building. History is precious. We hope our legislators realize that.

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