History on the chopping block

How do you place a dollar value on history? That's the daunting question faced by state-operated historic sites nationwide as they get short shrift in the financial crisis slashing state budgets.

How skillfully each state crafts an answer will determine the value our society places on remembering the past.

At the Charles B. Aycock Birthplace in Fremont, N.C., schoolchildren learn about the process of turning wool into yarn, dipping candles, making butter, and other such tasks that marked everyday life in 19th century rural America. The weathered 1840s farmhouse of a former North Carolina governor hosts visitors seeking a glimpse of lifestyles of yesteryear. This year, the staff of this state-run historical site has learned a lesson themselves - not about history but about economics.

In the wake of two budget emergencies declared by the state of North Carolina, the Aycock Birthplace, once open daily, is now closed two days a week.

A new fiscal year for state governments began July 1, and it's not looking rosy. Spiraling Medicaid costs, stagnant revenue sources, and a sluggish economy have all contributed to one of the worst financial climates state governments have faced in decades.

The states combined shortfall for fiscal year 2004 is estimated to be $82 billion, according to the National Governors Association. This comes cruelly on the heels of a $40 billion shortfall in fiscal year 2003, which forced states to make the biggest spending cuts seen in nearly three decades.

With no relief to the budget crunch in sight, lawmakers in nearly every state have made across-the-board reductions in programs. An Internet search reveals that historical sites and museums, whose budgets tend to be comparatively small from the start, are among the hardest-hit programs.

The budget for the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which funds many of the state's history museums and historical societies, was cut by 62 percent over the past two years, causing the elimination of 72 full-time jobs in 46 cultural organizations.

In South Carolina, the 2004 budget for the Department of Archives and History is almost identical to that of 1987.

Funding for the Minnesota Historical Society was cut by 16 percent this year. Barring acquisition of stable private funding, the organization faces a loss of up to one-third of its staff and the closure of seven historic sites.

In Illinois last year, the state preservation agency responded to budget cuts by decreasing hours of operation at more than 50 historical sites, from seven days a week to five.

Historical programs in Arizona, Washington, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida, Maine, and Maryland face significant budget reductions - ranging from 10 to 25 percent - that will force some sites to cut back hours of operation, delay building repair, or cancel upgrades to exhibits.

In lean times, lawmakers are concerned with the bottom line: What does it cost and what are we getting for our buck. History does not lend itself neatly to this sort of cost-benefit analysis.

In strict economic terms, historical sites and museums play an important role for their communities, attracting visitors and their dollars. Every time a site reduces its hours of operation or becomes so run down that folks stop coming, the local economy is negatively affected.

Yet an economic tally alone does not fully reflect the benefit of our historical resources.

How nice it would be if the true dollar value of our history could be quantified. But it can't, and therein lies the problem facing frustrated curators.

In the absence of hard data as a guide, historical-resource budgets are spared, if they are spared at all, solely on the basis of intangible benefits society derives from remembering the past.

The time to acknowledge and define those benefits is now, before the budget ax falls again next year.

Beth Joyner Waldron is a public policy analyst and writer.

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