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Little Bighorn museum

A new visitor center has been approved at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

A new visitor center and curation facility has been approved by the National Park Service for the 765-acre Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in south-central Montana.

Now comes a hard part: finding funding. The 10,600-square-foot visitor center’s price tag is estimated at $11.4 million. No cost analysis has yet been completed for the curation facility, which would house the 149,000 battlefield artifacts, including uniforms and documents, that are now stored in a Tucson, Arizona, facility

“This is the first big step of many for a new visitor center and curation facility that will improve interpretive and educational programming at the monument,” said Wayne Challoner, superintendent, in a press release. “Tribal input was a critical component of the planning process and will continue to play a significant role as we work through the design and construction phase.”

The monument will apply for funding that’s subject to a national competition with other National Park Service projects, Challoner said.

“It will be reviewed at a number of levels.”

National projects are judged on items like health, safety and needs, he explained, when competing for construction dollars.

The battlefield’s first visitor center and museum was built in 1952 to handle about 100,000 visitors a year. Since then visitation peaked at more than 422,000 in 2003 before dropping to 272,000 last year. As far back as 1986 the National Park Service recognized in its management plan for the site that a bigger facility was needed, but progress has been slow.

In 2014 a public planning process for the center was kicked off, which finally led to the determination in February to proceed with a new facility, which would be built in the same spot as the existing center.

“The size and the footprint has to remain the same,” Challoner said.

The current visitor center has a couple of serious ailments: it is at risk for flooding and does not have appropriate fire suppression to meet curatorial standards for sensitive artifacts. Because of these problems the majority of artifacts that helped tell the story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn were moved in 2011 to the Western Archaeological and Conservation Center in Tucson. Local tribal officials and history buffs weren’t happy about the transfer, fearing that the items may never be returned.

A new curation facility has yet to be designed. Challoner said site visits by regional staff have been tentatively scheduled to start this summer to initiate the process.

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