Prairie Lights: Let’s have an historic garage sale in Helena

Charles M. Russell’s painting, “Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross’ Hole,” is currently gathering dust in the Montana House chamber. (Montana Historical Society)

By Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The bad news was that, for something like the sixth consecutive session, legislators don’t want to allocate any money for a badly needed expansion and renovation of the Helena museum and research center.

Ed Kemmick

The good news is that a House member from Billings came up with an idea that could rain money down on the historical society like manna from heaven. Republican Rep. Dennis Lenz introduced House Bill 594, which would have required the historical society to fund its own expansion by throwing, in effect, the mother of all garage sales.

What could it sell? According to language in the bill, any objects in its possession “that do not possess outstanding historical value relative to Montana, do not display exceptional qualities of Montana’s history worth preserving, or do not tell the story of Montana.”

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. So brilliant, in fact, that the bill has already been tabled in committee and is probably dead. The Montana Legislature is notoriously hostile to brilliance.

But so what? The historical society hardly needs permission from the Legislature to do what was called for in Lenz’s bill.

“We all sometimes have to sell things we don’t want to,” Lenz was quoted as saying. “I’d suggest to you there may be a fine line between a hoard and a museum.”

It’s true. When Mrs. Kemmick and I sold our house and moved into an apartment several years ago, we were forced to sell off countless priceless mementoes, even though some of them displayed exceptional qualities of Kemmick family history. But we needed the money, damn it, and most of those artifacts hadn’t left their boxes in the basement for the better part of two decades.

The same holds true for the historical society. Its director, Bruce Whittenberg, admitted to legislators that space limitations prevent the society from displaying more than 8 percent of its holdings at any given time.

He was trying to make case for the expansion, of course, but he needs to ask himself: “Am I running a museum or playing Pied Piper to a bunch of irresponsible pack rats?”

To take just one example, a quick glance at the society’s collections page on its website tells me that among its holdings are 3,100 costumes and textiles, including
“ceremonial costumes worn by Odd Fellows and Rebekahs at the turn of the century.”

 Seriously, you’re going to brag about having a costume worn by something called an Odd Fellow? A Rebekah? I suppose we could pride ourselves on having something you’re not going to find at the Louvre, but that is hardly a good reason to hang onto such dross. Let the bidding begin!The society also boasts on its website of having more than 200 pieces by the cowboy artist Charles M. Russell—oils, watercolors, pen and inks, bronzes, etc. Well, jolly good, but what’s the point?

Wouldn’t one or two of each be plenty? Yes, they help tell the story of Montana, but rather in the manner of a doddering old man mumbling into his beard, repeating himself and falling asleep between snatches of interminable yarns.

For that matter, why should the state of Montana, in these times of tight budgets, be displaying a 12-by-25-foot Russell painting on the wall of the House chamber? The monumental painting is titled “Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross’ Hole.”

Wouldn’t a small, simple plaque tell the story just as well, and shouldn’t it be “Ross’s Hole” anyway? If that painting sold for less than $10 million I’d eat my hat. Hell, I’d eat one of Charlie Russell’s hats, if anyone has one of limited importance to the history of the state.

That painting, I should point out, is owned by the Montana Historical Society. Why should the society continue to display it in a chamber where most members can’t tell the difference between a Russell and a Renoir?

Just imagine what the historical society could do with $10 million. Come to think of it, just imagine what the state of Montana could do with the colossal fortune that would fall into its lap if it sold the entire Capitol building.

The Montana Historical Society is open year-round and attracts tens of thousands of visitors, preserves our history, informs and enlightens us, makes us better citizens, makes our state a better place to live.

The Capitol? It’s used for 90 days every couple of years by legislators who don’t even have to pass a competency test. Sure, it also houses permanent offices and whatnot, but the space utilization is an absolute scandal, as is the notion of surrounding part-time legislators who have no appetite for culture with untold millions of dollars worth of fine art and priceless architecture.

The whole thing ought to go on the auction block, replaced by a few perfectly functional Quonset huts. I wouldn’t even waste money on windows. Those lawmakers have work to do and shouldn’t be daydreaming.

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.