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Lawmaker wants Montana Historical Society to fund expansion by selling artifacts

Lawmaker wants Montana Historical Society to fund expansion by selling artifacts

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Montana Historical Society

The Montana Historical Society building in Helena is pictured in this file photo. It's located near the state Capitol building.

After Republicans dropped the proposal to expand the Montana Historical Society from a state infrastructure package, a lawmaker introduced a contentious bill requiring the museum to fund the project by selling pieces from their collection.

House Bill 594, carried by Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, would require the Montana Historical Society’s Board of Trustees to sell objects “that do not possess outstanding historical value relative to Montana, do not display exceptional qualities of Montana’s history worth preserving, or do not tell the story of Montana.” The proceeds, which could not exceed $50 million, would fund the construction of the Montana Heritage Center.

Because people often donate with a contract understanding their family’s artifacts won’t be sold to a private collector or for profit, the bill would allow the museum to honor existing contracts and attempt to renegotiate with a donor to sell a specific artifact.

The Montana Historical Society has asked the Legislature to partially fund the project since the 2005 session. With each session, the expansion project gets more expensive. When MHS originally asked for funding in 2005, the total cost was $37.5 million. In 2017, it will cost $44 million.

Bruce Whittenberg, executive director of the Montana Historical Society, and other experts at the museum are concerned about the age of the building. Air quality issues could damage items in the collection and space limitations keep the historical society from showing more than 8 percent of its collection at any given time.

And while the project is eliminated from this session’s infrastructure package, the Montana Historical Society and the surrounding museum community strongly opposed HB594 to fund expansion. They said the bill would jeopardize the mission of the museum, discourage people from making future donations and risk accreditation. It would also take nearly $30 million from the general fund to evaluate the collection and determine if anything is eligible to sell.

But Lenz said bonding for the project isn’t on the table and the museum needs to get creative.

“We all sometimes have to sell things we don’t want to,” he said. “I’d suggest to you there may be a fine line between a hoard and a museum.”

Numerous families who have previously donated or are considering donation said they would donate elsewhere if HB594 is passed. Whittenberg read a statement from John Maclean, son of Montana author Norman Maclean, who said he has a large and extremely valuable collection that he would never donate if HB594 is passed. Emily Hibbard, representing the Hibbard and Baucus families, said her family would also refuse to donate.

“At the Montana Historical Society, we don’t own the collections. Rather, we’re stewards,” Whittenberg said. “We’re not brokers and dealers.”

Passage of the bill would jeopardize the museum’s accreditation with the American Alliance of Museums, which has a policy preventing organizations from selling collections. Accreditation often reassures donors their collection will be preserved for the public. It’s also used to determine whether a museum meets professional and ethical standards.

“To lose accreditation is to lose potential grants and funding opportunities,” Bob Brown, a museum trustee, said. “Potential future donors will be reluctant to donate.”

The bill's sponsor and museum staff disagreed on the cost to implement the bill, with Lenz saying the museum’s report was an attempt to kill the legislation.

Museum Administrator Denise King said the entire collection would have to be reviewed before anything could be sold to comply with contract negotiations and determine whether a piece is relevant to Montana. King said they consulted with experts familiar with the museum’s collection to get an estimate, which comes to $27.9 million over a four year period.

King said the museum would spend $1.8 million reviewing 5,607 accessions records, $600,000 to complete cataloging of museum collections, $1.8 million photographing the collection, $8.6 million on appraisals and $15 million on commissions from auction houses.

Lenz disagreed with the projection, writing “The fiscal note is disingenuous poppycock” in his rebuttal.

“No rational person would include that the cost to sell $50 million in items would be $28 million,” he wrote. “Instead of an honest assessment of the actual costs, this is an under-handed attempt to kill HB594 by fiscal note.”

Lenz said the entire collection doesn’t need to be reviewed and photographing and cataloging should already be done. He said the bill should have minimal to no impact on the general fund.

While Whittenberg said he couldn’t think of a single artifact irrelevant to Montana, the bill would require an evaluation to be sure. The museum staff told the committee they are short-staffed and facing the same budget restrictions other state agencies are coping with this session. The museum’s collection has grown to 60,000 items in its 152 years of existence.

Rep. Jenny Eck is planning to introduce a bill to fund the project through an increase to the tax on lodging. The legislator didn’t have details on how much the tax would be.

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