ENTERPRISE EDITORIAL: Time to take care of Montana’s history

Time to take care of Montana’s history


We recently stood on a sidewalk on Livingston’s west side and looked down at the construction date stamped into the cement — 1906 — and pondered all the history that had flown by since that day: The sinking of the Titanic, World War I, the great influenza outbreak, the discovery of penicillin, World War II, the Vietnam War.

It was as if all of that history was compressed into a single impression in the cement.

Likewise, there is a place in Montana where all of the state’s history is compressed into a one single facility: The Montana Historical Society in Helena.

And “compressed” is certainly the word for it: The society, originally established in 1865 in Bannack — today the second oldest state historical society west of the Mississippi — is running out of room. 

“We’ve simply outgrown the building,” Montana Historical Society Director Bruce Whittenberg said during a recent interview with The Livingston Enterprise.

Whittenberg explained that the society’s 65-year-old building can no longer adequately house the treasured collections within. Those treasures include priceless C.M. Russell artwork. 

The building, which is always needing repairs, must be renovated, and a new building with additional space and parking urgently needs to be constructed as well.

The expansion would not just help maintain the museum, which has been called “The Smithsonian of the West.” It would also provide space for the society to adequately carry out its other vital programs: the research center and state archives; the State Historic Preservation Office; the Montana Historical Society press; and outreach and educational programming.

To that end, the society is asking the Montana Legislature for $27.6 million for its project, called the Montana Heritage Center. The funding request had been in Gov. Steve Bullock’s $157 million infrastructure bonding bill that included things like renovating Romney Hall at Montana State University ($25 million) and building a veterans home in Butte ($11 million). However, House Republicans just came up with their own infrastructure bill that doesn't include those projects, so the fate of the Heritage Center remains fluid.

The Historical Society board said in a recent Op-Ed it has tried unsuccessfully in the last five legislative sessions to secure funding for its project, and that last year the measure failed by a single vote.

The irony of these failures is that upgrading the Historical Society’s infrastructure would actually be a financial boon for Montana. Whittenberg said Montana State University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research estimated a new facility would bring in 78,000 new visitors per year for a total economic output of $21.5 million — representing an increase of $7.5 million in new visitor spending annually.

It’s time for this 65th Legislature to provide the Montana Historical Society what it needs. It’s time to truly treasure the Treasure State’s invaluable collections and programs that are vital to the lifeblood of our state. The society shouldn’t have to go begging any longer to preserve and proclaim Montana’s incredible heritage.

Call your Montana House and Senate members today and tell them so.

 — Dwight Harriman
Enterprise News Editor