We knew that the news was coming, yet we still winced when it was confirmed last week that the archives and museum collection of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument were heading to Arizona.
Kate Hammond, battlefield superintendent, said the irreplaceable collection is deteriorating in its substandard storage area — the basement of the park’s small, 59-year-old visitor center at the battlefield near Crow Agency. Danger to the artifacts from flood, fire and continued natural deterioration is too great to ignore. So monument officials will move the 123,000 historical archives and some 26,000 historic objects to a National Park Service center in Tucson over the summer.
Left behind will be the photographs and museum pieces already on display. Hammond said average visitors will not notice any difference in the visitor center offerings, though some items from the collection will be rotated through the visitor center’s displays.
On June 25, 1876, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led his 7th Cavalry to its demise against a force of Indian tribes. The legendary battlefield site has become a part of this region’s rich history, drawing more than 300,000 visitors each year from around the world.
Hammond said the relocation will be temporary, to “keep the collection together and available for researchers, in the best possible place for its protection and conservation until it can come home to a new museum facility.” Such a facility would have to feature climate controls and adequate staffing to preserve and protect these treasures.
Many people will not hold their breath waiting for the collection’s return, given the decades of failure in developing a new museum. Hammond said that since 1986, the management plan for the park has included a new visitor center and additional museum storage. In a Monday commentary in The Billings Gazette, Hammond said the plan has called for the center and museum to be built on land outside the 765-acre park’s boundary.
She also said that implementing the plan has been “mired in local politics, controversy and lack of legal authority.” Stakeholders in this effort include the Crow Tribe, whose reservation surrounds the national park, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee, which purchased land near the park that could be donated as a site for a new center, and federal, state and local officials.
The news that the archives and museum collection are moving to Tucson’s Western Archaeological and Conservation Center should serve as a wake-up call. Representatives from federal, state and local government, the tribes and other stakeholders in the battlefield’s future should renew efforts to fund and build a visitor center that will allow the return of the archives to a permanent and worthy Montana home.