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Will Washington state stop neglecting its own history and heritage?

A barn near Ellensburg (November 2014) Credit: Mark Engelbrecht/Flickr

Back when the recession hit and the budget watering holes in Olympia began to dry up, heritage advocates experienced some dark days. During the Christine Gregoire years, tough cuts were proposed and made. Grant programs were slashed, funds for a planned Heritage Center on the Capitol campus were raided for other projects, the Washington State Arts Commission was nearly defunded, state parks were slashed, and the governor suggested shutting down the state’s history museums.

Meeting in the early morning hours every Wednesday at the uncivilized hour of 7 a.m. during the legislative session, a group of dedicated cultural advocates gathers in the John A. Cherberg Building on the capitol campus to find ways to raise alarms and stave off the worst proposals. The so-called Heritage Caucus, consisting of legislators; heritage, museum and arts advocates; librarians; preservationists, and non-profit administrators meet to keep each other informed and forewarned about what lawmakers are up to. The caucus has helped navigate some hard times.

How’s the mood these days? Washington has come out of recession, the economy and tax revenues are growing. Perhaps the rollbacks of the past few years are a thing of the past? Not yet, but judging from the Senate and House operating and capital budgets put forward in recent weeks, there are signs of hope that the worst might be over, though things might never be as they were. For this budget cycle, if the state library — almost shuttered a few years back — and the state archives simply maintain their already slashed budgets, they can count that as success. The state library, perhaps Washington’s oldest official cultural institution founded with the Territory in 1853, has seen its staff cut by over 50 percent since 2001 and its budget lopped by about 40 percent during the same time period. That’s no way to treat a state resource that holds so much of our collective memory. The worst might be over for now, but some real damage has been done.

Still, there is good news. Both the Democratic-dominated House and the Republican-dominated Senate have seen fit to restore the Heritage Capital Grants program to $10 million for the next biennium, funding some 31 vetted bricks-and-mortar projects statewide, including restorations at Seattle’s Town Hall and Washington Hall, fixing-up the facade of Tacoma’s historic Pantages Theater, making the Ritzville Library ADA compliant, preserving a Colville Indian Agency cabin in Chewelah, restoring the classic Minoru Yamasaki-designed courtyard at the Pacific Science Center, to name a few. The grants represent no more than one-third of a project’s overall cost, the rest raised from other private or public sources. The proposed $10 million is double what Gov. Jay Inslee put forward in his budget and would restore the program to a previous level of robustness. It’s the kind of heritage grab bag politicians like: funding boosts for non-profit or public projects in legislative districts all over the state.

Everyone seems to like heritage, but not everyone wants to pay for it, and regional horse-trading will be part of any final budget. The House budget, for example, included $1.5 million for an ongoing program to restore historic county courthouses, often beautiful architectural specimens in need of renovations to protect the archives within; the Senate wants a more generous $3.5 million. The House didn’t include any funding for a popular program that helps pay for restoring rural barns of note — Barn Again. The Senate budget has $450,000 slated for the program, and Heritage Caucus co-chair Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, who also happens to be the Senate’s capital-budget chair, recently joked that he couldn’t go home without it. His district includes the eastern Yakima Valley.

The House budget calls for closing the State Capitol Museum, located in the old Lord Mansion in Olympia, a building that has just undergone extensive renovations yet, for budget reasons, had been forced to close for all but one day per week. The proposal is somewhat shocking. The Lord Mansion was donated to the state for museum use in the 1930s and is one of the more impressive historic homes in Olympia. For nearly three-quarters of a century (since 1942) it has showcased Olympia and state capital history. It became outdated for exhibiting artifacts — out of compliance with museum accreditation standards because it lacks appropriate climate controls – -so it has become home to panel and photographic exhibits, hosts meetings and acts as a resource and staging center for heritage advocates and events like Washington History Day. The house and gardens are themselves an attraction.

The proposed closure would strip away its museum status and the mansion would be transferred to the Department of Enterprise Services, the agency that handles state properties, and probably rented out to a government or private tenant, likely closing the historic home to the public. Move over museum and welcome DMV?

The proposed closure cuts the Washington State Historical Society’s budget. The society, which runs the excellent Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, has been paring back, and though some would argue the Capitol Museum is expendable and has long been pricey to maintain, the proposal continues a disturbing trend of cutbacks for the society. Back in 2008, before budget butchery became the norm, their biennial state budget was $7 million. The House puts their 2015-17 budget at around $4.45 million, austere by historical comparison, but not as bad as the exercise Gov. Inslee made departments go through in imagining 15 percent cuts on top of those already imposed in prior budgets. The society and the Eastern Washington State Historical Society have been encouraged to seek more private funding.

WSHS Executive Director Jennifer Kilmer came in during the lean times and regards such generous pre-recession budgets wistfully, “I look at those number and I think, ‘What I can do with that!’ I can do something awesome with $50,000 — a great exhibit. It doesn’t take a lot.” In the best of worlds, she’d be open to reviving the Capitol Museum — it would take more updating and active programming — but her inner pragmatist is guarded. “All I can say I’m trying to take the resources we have and focus them in on the best possible impact.” A museum only open one day a week is not a way to maximize anything but futility.

While the Capitol Museum might be headed for mothballs, another state museum is feeling more hopeful. The Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus is planning to build an entirely new, modern museum of natural history and culture. The Burke has outgrown its current set-up and its future rests on a new $95 million facility. The state has already given them more than $3 million for design and planning. About half the big price tag the museum’s leaders hope to get from the state’s capital budget appropriation. They’ve already raised $13 million in other donations, and the UW will kick in another $7.5 million once that state has committed.

Inslee suggested a smallish $16 million appropriation, the House upped that to $23.6 million, and the Senate has earmarked the full $46 million request. The final allocation is subject to negotiation, but the Senate’s proposal would allow ground to be broken on the new Burke by the end of this year. The Burke’s executive director, Julie Stein, says the money is critical to the project’s success and that she’s “grateful that the governor, House and Senate all recognize the need to invest in a new facility to protect the state’s invaluable natural history and culture collections.”

If the Senate seems bullish about the Burke, the same cannot be said for its approach on the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP). The agency has a wide range of duties, some federally mandated. It is involved in historic preservation, ensuring state and federal environmental laws are followed regarding cultural resources during projects, the identification and repatriation of human remains, and running the Main Street program, which provides a business model and tax credits to help preserve and revitalize historic commercial districts across the state, from Port Townsend and Puyallup to Wenatchee and Walla Walla.

Recently, the department was forced to move from a building with leakage and mold issues and is now ensconced in the state-owned old Thurston County Courthouse near the capitol. The Inslee and House budgets cover the higher rent at the new location. The Senate proposal does not, and goes further in cutting the DAHP’s budget significantly (by nearly $700,000 over two years). That presents the department’s head, Allyson Brooks, with a dilemma by, in her words, pitting the state’s Main Street program against the tribes by gutting the department’s Skeletal Remains program. The Senate proposal designates that money will be switched from a dedicated “bones” fund to pay for operating expenses and it eliminates an assistant state anthropologist position. One heritage advocate characterizes the proposed cuts as “atrocious.”

Main Street boosts small business; the Skeletal Remains program covers the costs of private property owners who discover human bones on their land, especially important now with stricter laws in the last decade regarding the disposition of human remains and the challenges they can present when dug up during construction projects. Note to all Washingtonians: You cannot bulldoze bones, even if they inconvenience your project. A state anthropologist determines those of native origins, which are then repatriated to the tribes. Handling pioneer era bones respectfully is also important. Experience has taught that failing to deal with human remains, from Indian burial grounds to old settler cemeteries, can be expensive for those who are unprepared, ignorant or arrogant. Removing them illegally can be a felony. Brooks worries that the Senate proposal would put her in the position of having to choose between letting down the tribes and private property owners, or the towns and small businesses trying to boost their communities.

You often hear people in Olympia say, in the face of current budget realities, that this is the best they can do. It’s true that large budget issues — the McCleary education funding mandate from the Supreme Court, the order for more mental health beds, the public’s desire for smaller class sizes, the increased costs of a growing state — all are putting demands on spending. At the same time, it is hard to reconcile prioritizing education while not doing more to reverse erosion of our libraries, archives, historical societies and parks. How do you fulfill the state constitutional mandate to educate without the very institutions designed to preserve and make accessible the raw material of education? Will future school kids one day be relegated to taking field trips to office cubicles? These issues are being addressed slowly, but not yet boldly enough overall. Perhaps the most important renovation project would be a concerted effort to not simply restore the state’s commitment to heritage as a core activity, but to boost it — technologically, materially, financially and in terms of staff and know-how — for the coming generations.

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