On Thursday morning, a Montana legislative committee got a rare look at an original Charles M. Russell water color, “The Steer Rider.” Jennifer Bottomly, curator for the Montana Historical Society, carefully carried the 11-by-9 framed art with white gloves. The committee is considering funding an expansion and renovation of the historical museum across the street from the Capitol.
The people of Montana own 225 original Russell works, which are entrusted to the Montana Historical Society. But about a third of the Russells — including The Steer Rider — are in storage because the 70-year-old museum building doesn’t have enough room to exhibit them.
In fact, about 90 percent of the museum’s 50,000 artifacts and artworks is in storage for lack of exhibit space. Worse, some of that storage space doesn’t have the security and climate controls to assure that priceless pieces of Montana’s history are safeguarded for future generations. Leaks and a flood have occurred in the museum.
The Montana Heritage Center is among the projects in House Bill 14 now under consideration by the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Long-Range Planning. The project first received legislative approval in 2005 when lawmakers authorized $7.5 million in bonding authority as partial funding for the expansion and renovation of the museum at Sixth and Roberts streets.
That decision was made after looking at other sites and determining that keeping the museum within easy walking distance of the Capitol is the best tourist package. It’s also a great location for school groups and other Montana citizens who have business at the Legislature or meetings at the Capitol.
The Historical Society has been trying for the past 14 years to secure the remainder of bonding authority needed. Bruce Whittenberg, Historical Society executive director, told the committee that close to $4 million in private donations and pledges has been raised from 600 donors, but some of that amount is contingent on additional state funding.
HB14 proposes to authorize $32.12 million in bonding authority for the museum. With the previously authorized bonding authority and a commitment to increase private funding to $10 million, the project will be fully funded.
The museum logs 85,000 visitors per year, including tourists and Montanans from across the state. The expanded and updated museum is sure to attract more visitors.
The Montana Historical Society was established in 1865 by the first Territorial Legislature. The Historical Society became a state agency in 1891, just two years after Montana became a state, making it our oldest state agency.
The Montana Historical Society has been called the Smithsonian of the West, a moniker that should make Montanans proud. But the building constructed 70 years ago is in dire need of renovation and the collection has long since outgrown capacity for safe storage. The collection keeps growing, in part because the Historical Society is the legal repository for state records, which become more numerous every year.
Researchers and Montana families find their treasure in Montana’s museum. It is time for our generation to step up as Montanans did when they established the Historical Society and built the first museum.
The 2019 Legislature should find a way to fund the expansion and renovation of Montana’s museum. Let’s do this for ourselves, for our children and grandchildren.