State's history may be lost in cuts

January 23, 2011 

The former Lord Mansion in Olympia's South Capitol neighborhood will celebrate its 70th anniversary next year as the State Capital Museum.

Chances are, it won’t be much of a celebration.

The museum is targeted for closure in Gov. Chris Gregoire’s 2011-13 budget, as are the other Washington State Historical Society museums, in Tacoma and Spokane.

There is $2.4 million in the budget to maintain the museums and their priceless collections, but they won’t be open to the public. That would take twice as much money as the “let’s just mothball them” approach, noted David Nicandri, director of the state historical society, which relies on state funding to support many of the museum exhibits and educational programs.

Once shuttered, the museum programs will be hard to resurrect even in better economic times, Nicandri predicted.

Instead of investing, the state is divesting of its history and culture, leaving schoolchildren, families, historical scholars and others with more questions than answers about the events and people who shaped our region’s history, from American Indians to pioneers to statehood to modern times.

The Olympia museum isn’t the magnetic draw that the Tacoma museum is – about 3,500 people a year visit the Olympia museum compared with more than 100,000 a year who visit the museum in Tacoma, which opened in 1997.

In fact, the State Capital Museum is open to the public only from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturdays. It has already fallen victim to previous state budget cuts at the front end, middle and backside of the Great Recession.

But the number of museum visitors doesn’t tell the whole story, noted Susan Rohrer, manager of the State Capital Museum.

The Olympia museum houses education and outreach programs that touch thousands more. For instance, it’s home base for the Washington State History Day Program, a history discovery program that reaches 6,000 to 10,000 students each year. It’s also home to the Women’s History Consortium Program, which preserves and shares with the public resources related to women’s history.

This school year, the women’s history program includes a special field trip opportunity to the State Capital Museum on Wednesday through Friday for students to experience an exhibit in honor of the 100th anniversary of Washington women gaining the right to vote.

Good thing this milestone moment in the women’s suffrage movement didn’t happen 99 or 98 years ago: There’s no guarantee the museum would be open to celebrate it.

‘SHORT-SIGHTED’

The demise of the State Capital Museum and Washington State History Museum has South Sound history buffs shaking their heads and wringing their hands, wondering how the state could turn out the lights on places that keep history alive.

“I know we all need to be thriftier,” noted South Sound historian Drew Crooks. “But to eliminate an entire historical program seems short-sighted.”

Gutting the Washington State Historical Society budget doesn’t sit well either with Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, a board member of the 1,900-member historical society. But he doesn’t have a political white horse in his stable to ride to the rescue.

In a phone conversation Thursday, Hunt said lawmakers are so wrapped up in the early days of the session trying to patch the supplemental budget, he hasn’t even started working on a strategy to save funding for the museums in the next biennial budget.

Pressed a little further, Hunt has no idea what his strategy should be.

“What am I going to cut to put the money back in the museum budget?” Hunt asked. “I’ll be an advocate for the museums, but it’s an uphill battle.”

OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

The public would lose access to more than a museum. The State Capital Museum is the only mansion in the historic South Capitol neighborhood that is open to the public.

Built by Clarence and Elizabeth Lord in 1923, the 32-room, Spanish Colonial villa was designed by well-known Olympia architect Joseph Wohleb.

Clarence Lord was a prominent banker and served as mayor of Olympia in 1902-03. He died in 1937, and Elizabeth Lord and her daughter, Helen, donated the home and grounds to the state in 1939. It opened to the public as the State Capital Museum on March 5, 1942, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

The museum and adjoining coach house – Lord had a fondness for luxury automobiles – have played host to countless receptions, private parties, book signings, lectures and other community events.

“It’s always been a state museum with a lot of community activities,” Crooks said. “And it’s always been a place people go, if they have questions about history.”

Are the answers available elsewhere? Can the museum programs be replaced? I doubt it.

Our knowledge of state and local history is about to be diminished, if the state Legislature goes through with these budget cuts.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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