Washington state heritage, it's so 1990s.
The Washington State History Museum opened with great fanfare in 1996 and might live to celebrate its 15th anniversary this coming summer. The taxpayer-funded museum was the new headquarters of the Washington State Historical Society, a state agency founded in 1907. It was designed to showcase our collective heritage, educate the kids with fabulous exhibits, and be a key link in the latest revitalization of downtown Tacoma, which has relied heavily on historic preservation. The museum has been a literal bridge between projects: to take the skybridge to Tacoma's iconic Glass Museum, you pass through the history museum site.
But that is all now in serious jeopardy with Gov. Chris Gregoire's new budget proposal. Heritage is not the only thing being slashed, and most would likely say not it's the most crucial, but it is a dark day in state history for state history. As one heritage professional I spoke with said, "it's looking into the abyss."
The good news, says Dave Nicandri, director of the state historical society since 1987, is that his agency is not slated for outright elimination, unlike the Washington State Arts Commission. But the governor wants to mothball state museums in Tacoma and Spokane, and the shutdown would also include the state Capitol Museum in Olympia, which is already down to a day per week. The cuts would leave only money for a skeleton crew to maintain the buildings and protect the precious artifact and document collections. This, plus cutting educational and outreach programs through local historical societies, would amount to $5.2 million in savings.
Nicandri says on paper, it looks like he's "only" taking a 52 percent cut in his biennial budget, but most of the remaining funds are to pay for shutdown costs like unemployment benefits for the dismissed staffers. The 105,000 people who visit the museum each year, well, they'll be locked out.
The closures would have ramifications at the very time when businesses are looking to heritage tourism and historic renovation as a way out of the economic dumps. Already Tacoma merchants are sounding the alarm about losing the "synergy" in a district that has been heavily rehabilitated and improved, thanks to anchor projects like the museum. Spokane's Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture is in the historic Browne's Addition neighborhood and said in a prepared statement that "we seriously question the policy decisions that led to this approach." They've already endured 40 percent staff cuts and "are in the black."
Nicandri notes that the state historical society survived the "Great Depression, two world wars and the Cold War." It used to be smaller and benefited during the New Deal from pass-through funding from the WPA. At one time, Nicandri remembers, economic stimulus included history and the arts. But despite its growth and expansion into public engagement, the role it plays in Tacoma's revival and in making local history accessible to the public, the percentage of state funds has declined in the modern era. In the 1980s, the state funded 95 percent of the historical society's budget; today it ranges from 65 to 75 percent, thanks to memberships and fundraising, Nicandri says.
Washington's historical society isn't the only one in trouble. Oregon's has been in crisis for some time with declining state funding and management issues, but was bailed out by taxpayers this November when the citizens of Multnomah County voted to approve a "local option levy" to keep the society, its museum, and library going. Nicandri doesn't believe taxpayers here would have the same option.
The state museums aren't the only area where heritage is taking a hit. Gregoire's budget also proposes eliminating the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation and rolling it into the Department of Natural Resources. The proposed budget would trim staff, cut funding by 55 percent, and absorb it into a larger entity, DNR, that has a completely different mission.
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