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HELENA - Richard Sims, the new director of the Montana Historical Society, turns to famed Western writer Wallace Stegner for inspiration when asked about his goals for the state agency he heads.

"I want to work to build a society to match the scenery," Sims said, quoting Stegner.

Stegner, the late writer, was discussing human society in dismissing the myth of the rugged individual in the West, Sims said.

However, the society Sims referred to is the Montana Historical Society itself, the agency established in 1865, one year after Montana became a territory.

"I'm going to work with as many partnerships, externally and internally, to build that society that matches the scenery," Sims said in an interview Monday.

Sims said the discussions will extend far beyond the walls of the Historical Society, which is across the street from Montana's Capitol.

"I see this as a Montana conversation, not just a Helena conversation," Sims said. "The Montana word is in our title. I need to get among this state frequently and so do the staff and board members, too."

He wants Montana's American Indian tribes to be part of that conversation.

"I have lots of experience working with tribal colleges around the Southwest, and I look forward to learning about the native culture around Montana and working with them," he said.

A top item facing the society is the development of a new Montana History Center to house the state's historical museum. The 2005 Legislature provided $7.5 million in bonding for the project, with the society expected to raise the remaining $33.5 million or more.

One site under consideration is the Capital Hill Mall, located several blocks north of the current museum. There has been talk about buying the mall and the land beneath it and converting it into a history center. Another possibility is razing the mall and constructing a new history center. Other locations have also been discussed.

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Earlier this summer, Gov. Brian Schweitzer said any site decisions should be postponed until after Sims has had a chance to make an assessment.

"I appreciate the governor giving the director the time to walk around the block more than once," Sims said. "I need time to work with staff and the board and the people of Montana. I need time to talk about what before we get back to talking about where."

He likened it to relocating a business. The availability of real estate is a factor, but it's not the only one.

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Sims, 59, took over as Historical Society director on July 1 after a career as a museum professional in the West since 1979. He came from Prescott, Ariz., where he was director of the Sharlot Hall Museum for 11 years.

He succeeded Arnie Olsen, who resigned in November.

Sims said he has met for 20-30 minutes with nearly every member on the society's staff "from the seasoned professionals to the seasonal workers" and is finishing up the visits. The society has the equivalent of 57 full-time staff members.

"My initial reaction is I've got a hell of a team," Sims said. "Every level of staff is a dedicated professional."

Sims said he was impressed by the impact the society and its staff have around Montana, with traveling exhibits, lectures, technical workshops, publications and consultations with smaller museums.

On a sad note, Dave Walter, the society's revered research historian, died of a heart attack last month. Sims said the society would complete the projects Walter was involved with, including a middle-school Montana history textbook.

"We intend to do many things in his honor when the time is right," Sims said.

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