A year ago, we published the first Heritage Turkey Awards. Now it's time for a look at a sampling of this past year's preservation fiascos, scary trends, and unnecessary demolitions. The list is hardly comprehensive, though I have broadened the scope to include non-preservation heritage issues. Nor do I highlight success stories (and there were some). It does give an idea of the kinds of heritage challenges the region faces, especially in light of tough economic times.
The war on heritage
Winner: Proposed budget of Gov. Chris Gregoire
I was going to leave budget-cutters off this year's list because everyone's been slashing heritage programs, from President Barack Obama on down to your local mayor or city council. But Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire becomes the new poster child for the war on heritage. Her latest budget for the 2011-13 biennium makes a lot of tough choices, but it also makes some really bad ones. Notably, subsuming the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation into the Department of Natural Resources, an agency whose mission is, essentially, to grow and cut trees. It makes a strange new home for the urban-renewing Main Street program, and a demotion for the state's single most important heritage agency. Gregoire's budget also proposes to shut down the state's public history museums in Tacoma, Spokane, and Olympia.
It gets worse. Gregoire has suspended Heritage Capital Projects funding, slashing $10 million in grants around the state. She also cuts programs for restoring historic barns and county courthouses and eliminates out-reach programs for local historical societies. To add insult, her budget includes $6.3 million to demolish an historic building. The General Administration Building is a National Register structure on the Capitol campus, and money for its demolition could be used to fund at least some restoration projects during the current crisis. However the governor argues that the aging GA building is a money pit.
The GA demolition clears the way for something new, and oft proposed, which is the not-yet-fully-unfunded scheme to build a new state Heritage Center proposed by the Secretary of State's office. This center would bring together the state library, expanded state archives, and new state worker offices, and create exhibit space and a "welcome center" at the Capitol. The cost of the new facility is estimated at between $100 million and $140 million. Many heritage advocates believe the Heritage Center is an expensive boondoggle that should not come at the cost of destroying an historic structure, much less be contemplated when we're closing the museums we already have.
All in all, Gregoire's proposals are of historically bad proportions for Washington heritage.
Recipe for Ignorance
Winner: The Seattle Times
One would think in a time of difficulty, a newspaper occupying an historic landmark building and with a strong sense of its own past would sound the drum for heritage. But the Seattle Times editorial board is an enthusiastic proponent of downsizing government, not raising taxes, keeping its own tax breaks, and letting heritage be damned. In a recent editorial praising Gregoire's draconian cuts, the newspaper questioned the need for history museums, listing them as "nice but not necessary." Not necessary? Does the Times think closing The Burke Museum or the Henry Gallery at the UW would also be a good idea? For more than a century the state has helped to fund the Washington State Historical Society as a basic function of government. It even received additional government support during the Great Depression when public investment in heritage (via the WPA) was rightly seen as part of the solution to the nation's problems, not part of its cause. We still benefit from that legacy today.
Is history now moot? Is the state's commitment to heritage (enshrined in law by legislative declaration) null and void? Are we to quietly accept cuts to schools, teachers, libraries, and heritage institutions that are the bedrock of public history as being essential to the "reset" of government services? The notion that museums are "nice but not necessary" is a recipe for promoting ignorance. Let's hope the legislature sees it differently.
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