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Our View: Merging historical societies would be costly savings

In good times, community institutions such as Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture can count on state government for financial support. In rugged times like these, they accept their share of belt-tightening.

But that doesn’t justify the baffling proposal that Gov. Chris Gregoire has made to merge the two historical societies that operate the MAC and the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.

Presumably, consolidating the Washington State Historical Society with the Eastern Washington State Historical Society is one way to fill $500,000 worth of the $5.7 billion hole in the state’s 2009-’11 biennial budget. It also fits with the governor’s stated determination to chip away at the proliferation of state boards and commissions.

Saving money and streamlining bureaucracy are great ideas, but blending two museums that have evolved in different regions, have separate focuses, and have earned the loyalties of their respective communities and supporters – that does more harm than good.

State funding covers only a portion of the MAC’s budget. Much of it comes from community members who value the institution’s regional mission enough to contribute money and volunteer time to its operation and upkeep. Rolling the MAC into one statewide entity with its Tacoma-based counterpart puts those local relationships in jeopardy, both here and in Pierce County.

Both museums would lose their identities while watching their bases of support dissolve. Both probably would lose more funding than could be saved by blending and reducing the historical societies’ staffs. If travel, meals and lodging for occasional meetings are a burden, there are other ways. Teleconferencing, for example.

In a letter to Gregoire, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and other Spokane legislators, former MAC board member Liz Burroughs noted that the Tacoma and Spokane museums are different institutions, dedicated to local interests and buoyed by local pride.

Among the relationships at risk in the MAC’s case is the one solidified over several years with Columbia Plateau Indian tribes who have a cultural interest in the museum’s acclaimed collection of Native American artifacts.

Former Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession, now the acting director of the MAC, put it plainly when he said the merger would be a mortal wound to both museums.

If funds for the two institutions must be trimmed as part of the state’s budget solution, that should be examined separately. A forced marriage between them would be disastrous for both.

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