HELENA - Faced with legislative budget cuts, the Montana Historical Society announced Friday it will close its museum two days a week starting later this month and discontinue guided tours of the Capitol and the original governor's mansion.
A $760,000 reduction over the next two years may seem insignificant in light of other cuts from the Legislature, but for a small agency like the Montana Historical Society, it amounts to a 20 percent shortfall. The reduction is from "present-law" levels - the amount the society would have gotten in normal circumstances. Gov. Judy Martz's budget called for a $560,000 reduction over the biennium. The session, including an 11th hour across-the-board rollback for state agencies, left the Historical Society facing the $760,000 cut.
The society announced a cost-saving plan Friday that calls for shutting the museum on Sundays and Mondays starting Memorial Day weekend. The agency also will no longer provide guided tours of the Capitol or the Original Governor's Mansion.
Director Arnold Olsen said the cuts were necessary to be able to maintain the core of the society's work, including archiving Montana's records and keeping watch over the state's historical items.
"Everything we're cutting is essential in my mind," he said. "It's like asking, 'Which child do you want to do without?' "
Since the special legislative session last summer, Olsen said, the Historical Society has been operating with the same staff level that it had in the mid-1980s. Despite staff reductions, demand for services has steadily increased over the years, he said.
In response, Martz's spokesman Chuck Butler said, "I think it's unfortunate that they've got to scale back operations, but it's a reflection of the need for all government programs, generally speaking, to scale back to meet the funds that were made available."
By closing on Sundays and Mondays, the society can save money on security costs and give the research staff time to catch up on already overwhelming amounts of work. Normally, those same people who catalogue and take care of the collections also serve the public. So, by closing the doors, those people can maximize their time by just working with the photo archives, the library and other archives, Olsen said.
In the past, the museum has been open seven days a week during the summer and Monday through Saturday during the winter months. People can still take self-guided tours through the Capitol or pre-schedule at tour. However, because of security concerns, the loss of guided tours in the original governor's mansion will effectively close it, Olsen said.
"It's tough for us to continue the services we do have," he said. "But, we're doing the best we can."
Not only will the closings affect local residents and school groups who visit the museum and the mansion, but Olsen said the reduced hours also could have an economic effect on the state, by not attracting or keeping as many tourists in the area.
"We know this is a great inconvenience for Montanans and will likely have economic impacts for tourism, but we have few choices left," he said in a statement.
To help lessen the blow of the closings, the museum will be open later on Thursdays, until 8 p.m. Normal hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. It will be closed all holidays.