In the midst of the Great Depression, which makes what we’re going through now seem like a hiccup, history wasn’t considered part of the problem.
Among the many federal jobs initiatives was the Writers’ Program. And among the projects completed was the American Guide Series.
“A Guide to the Evergreen State,” published in 1940, was sponsored by something called the Washington State Historical Society, which had been based in Tacoma since 1891.
“During the Great Depression, it was perceived that investing in history and culture was a means of addressing civic malaise,” said David Nicandri, the current executive director of the society. “It was done so people would have faith in the future.”
In 2011, history and heritage are considered a luxury. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget closes state history museums in Tacoma, Spokane and Olympia and all but ends the education and outreach programs of the historical society.
The savings are a few million dollars, but the cost is immeasurable.
“Not only are we not perceived as part of the solution, we’re perceived as part of the problem,” Nicandri said.
That’s because we’ve convinced ourselves that unless it feeds and clothes and cures the most desperate among us, it isn’t vital. Unless it can be tied directly to a high-paid job or a growth industry, it isn’t worth funding.
This business-like attitude makes learning for learning’s sake passé; turns art and heritage into frills; labels concepts of community and society as “nice but not necessary.”
But not everything has to be life and death or war and peace to get a public dollar. States keep their history just as they store their archives. They subsidize history degrees just as they subsidize electronic engineering degrees.
Besides, remembering our past is sometimes necessary because it isn’t all that nice. Recent museum exhibits told the story of the fight for civil rights for blacks and the campaign for voting rights for women.
The nice-but-not-necessary viewpoint will have its most obvious impact in downtown Tacoma.
Gregoire proposes mothballing for at least two years the 15-year-old Washington State History Museum.
Tacoma people might care about the backhand this will deliver to the city’s still-struggling but progressing revitalization. They will certainly resent the violation of a deal in which the city donated the land and private donors raised millions for the exhibits in return for the state’s funding of the Charles Moore-designed building.
A small group of local leaders has begun organizing to stop a closure that will cast a shadow over downtown, the other museums and even the University of Washington Tacoma.
But the local economic development argument won’t resonate much beyond the city limits. Instead, proponents might make the case that the society’s museums may be in Tacoma and Olympia but its services reach across the state.
It helps local history museums. It sponsors the National History Day competition for high school students. It created something as simple as history boxes so teachers can use lesson plans and actual artifacts to teach kids about native peoples, about Lewis and Clark, about frontier towns.
Proponents might also note that not only is running the History Museum relatively cheap – less than $1.5 million a year – but that it leverages tens of thousands of dollars in private contributions and thousands of hours of volunteer labor.
“As small an investment as this is, is magnified across the state in the help it gives to teachers, to scouts, to parents,” said Julie Stein, the director of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Her museum retains its state funding, but she recognizes the danger of the slippery slope.
Proponents should avoid the trap of trying to defend this cut versus cuts that are more-obviously painful. Had Gregoire not included this in her budget plan, she wouldn’t have been forced to cut deeper into social programs and other education programs. She simply could have left a bit less in the ending-fund-balance – $878 million instead of $881 million.
Best to stick with holding the state to its part of a bargain with Tacoma and private donors. Best to argue that we are not so down, not so depressed that we can no longer agree that history and heritage are fundamental to any society of people and their government.
That they are both nice and necessary.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics