Historical Society celebrates start of long-sought expansion

HELENA — The Montana Historical Society in Helena hosted state and local leaders this week to celebrate the start of a long-awaited expansion.

The ceremonies marked the official beginning of construction on the Montana Heritage Center, a new building adjacent to the current MHS building that will provide more space for exhibits and better conditions for caring for the society’s collections.

“This is a special day for all of Montana,” said MHS director Bruce Whittenberg. “Montana’s made an investment in its history and in its future.”

Steve Lozar, a member of the Historical Society’s board of trustees, led a tribal “ground blessing” ceremony, which incorporates smoke, water and earth to symbolically give thanks.

“Everyone that walks into this place walks in with equality, walks in with a pure heart, and finds what this ground and this place really is – and that’s a place of discovery, where we discover who we are, how we connect,” he said.

Leaders, including Gov. Steve Bullock, then turned the first shovels of dirt for the official groundbreaking.

The Montana Historical Society has been looking at expansion for years. The Heritage Center project was initially proposed 15 years ago. Since then, various attempts to move the project forward failed to pass the Montana Legislature.

Finally, in 2019, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 338, endorsed by Helena-area Sens. Terry Gauthier and Jill Cohenour and Rep. Julie Dooling. It raised the state lodging tax from 3% to 4% and directed the additional revenue toward the Heritage Center and other museums and historical sites in Montana.

The Montana Historical Society is also seeking to raise about $10 million in private funding to help support the Heritage Center project. Whittenberg said, so far, they’ve secured about $5.1 million.

“It’s a team sport,” he said. “It took a lot of people to make it happen.”

All in all, the project is estimated to cost $52.7 million.

Since Bullock signed SB 338, the Montana Department of Administration has taken the lead in managing the Heritage Center project. The department put together committees that are working on the design and plans for the new building.

In addition, after considering several locations around the Helena area, DOA director John Lewis confirmed the center would be built next to the existing MHS building, on the Montana State Capitol campus.

“We believe it’ll be a catalyst for further improvements on the greater campus area,” Lewis said.

Lewis told MTN the state hasn’t received as much from the lodging tax as they expected, due to the impacts of COVID-19. However, he said they have enough money from previously approved bonds and other sources that they can begin work without being delayed.

The first preliminary work at the site will start this fall, with initial steps like utilities being relocated. In addition, Sixth Avenue will be permanently closed between Roberts and Sanders Streets as part of the project. Contractors say that closure could start within the next month or two.

The Heritage Center is set to open its doors in 2024.

“We have a very rich and proud history, and we’d like people to come visit with their children and grandchildren years from now and be very proud of what they see,” said Whittenberg.

You can find the latest information on the Heritage Center project at montanamuseum.org.