Heritage and the Government Shut Down

museum cautionBeen to a museum lately? How much did you pay to get inside? Ever think about where the money comes from to keep them running? Many used to be privately funded, but that changed in the last 50 years or so. As a writer who works for heritage organizations and is paid by Federal dollars routed through them, the “Big Shutdown” affects me directly too. Don’t worry. I’m not starving, but it hurts. So what happened?

Private Funding. Private funding for museums used to come from generous individuals, and most often their estates. Many who founded museums in the 1950’s and 60’s did so for the tax benefit: a museum was a great tax shelter. Many set up heritage trusts, especially in rural areas, specifically designed around historic site preservation and education: thus the IRS 501(c)3 status of many museums. But that generation has slowly been replaced by a younger one that for whatever reason feels more entitled. Private donations to museums and historical societies fell off sharply. In short, most were in real financial trouble.

102_4697Admission Fees. I admit, I was an admission fee snob until I worked for a museum. We build a world class attraction, one of the best small museums in the state and region, spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in an effort to preserve the history of Wallace, Idaho, and Idaho’s Silver Valley, one of the nation’s premier mining areas. We weren’t the only ones. Heritage tourism is big in the area where Big Ed Pulaski fought the 1910 fires, and where Wyatt Earp spent a few short months. Yet when people walked in they regularly baulked at the admission price: $3.

102_2898That’s right. Three lousy bucks to see, in my opinion, one of the coolest museums you will ever visit. Many were used to publicly funded museums on the east coast, where admission was free. But if the government shut down illustrates one thing, it is that those museums are no freer than the small one in Wallace. They are just paid for differently. I remember one woman who walked in and threatened to call her congressman, because she had to pay to get in. I asked her to please do so, perhaps he would send us some money.

Federal Grants. Many museums shifted from relying on Federal Grants rather than private donations or private grants. The private money just wasn’t there any more. That’s why, as the budget gets cut, museums close early, shorten hours, and sometime stop accepting donations and go into what they call “collections care” mode. Citizens have come to expect museums to be dependent on Federal money that is one of the first things cut in almost any budget. Not to mention state and county budgets, where there is now almost no room for these “non-essential” services. That’s why the Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane nearly shut its doors a few years back and drastically reduced operating hours and staff. Federal grants that were cut from the budget funded nearly 75% of their operation.

1995 closeupAnd federal contracts for reports necessary for the preservation of history and archeology at various sites? You guessed it. They get cut too. And when the government shuts down, they go away. Many of these reports are funded by trusts and other methods to protect them. Those trusts are getting smaller or disappearing all together. How do you think those trusts performed when you lost half of your retirement? You guessed it again. They fared no better than your 401k.

Here’s a final hint. We can’t learn from history if we do not preserve it. If we do not learn from it, we are doomed to repeat it. Remember the election after the shutdown 17 years ago? Remember the turnover in the House and Senate? That’s history. This is today. I’m sure there are no lessons to be learned there.

Now if anyone asks you if you know someone that is directly affected by the government shut down, you can say yes. Then look around, and realize that even if it doesn’t seem like this is a big deal, it affects all of us in the long run.