This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Across the western United States, museums and libraries are facing threats in the form of devastating budget cuts. While budget news lacks the visuals of smashed museum exhibit cases and gilded statues of King Tut gone missing as in looting that occurred during the recent unrest in Egypt the damage done to our cultural heritage institutions would be real.
When the budget ax swings, glass may not be smashed, but doors can slam shut. The result: collections that are inaccessible to the public, for exhibition, education or research.
In Utah, the assault on museums is real. A state legislative audit issued in January recommended closing five of the state's 43 state parks. Four of the five on the list were "heritage parks" (museums and historic sites), including archaeology-focused Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding and the Utah Field House of Natural History in dinosaur-rich Vernal. In March, funding for the state's Parks and Recreation Division was cut a drastic 59 percent for the 2011-12 fiscal year.
It's happening to museums and it's happening to libraries. In Texas, the recently announced budget for fiscal 2012-13 will cut funding for the Texas State Library and Archives Commission by 64 percent; funding for library programs will be slashed an astonishing 88 percent.
In Seattle, the city's public library system plans to close for one week in late summer in order to save approximately $650,000 just a portion of its budget reduction target of $3.7 million this year.
At the University of Nevada, Reno, this past spring the University Libraries actually saw its entire Special Collections Department, which houses unique historical materials that document the history of Nevada and the Great Basin, put on the chopping block. At the eleventh hour, Special Collections was spared when the university accepted an alternative budget reduction plan from the library.
For these institutions, simply staying open may seem like an achievement, but that's not enough. Closure is not the only threat. It's just the impact that visitors are most likely to notice. Behind the scenes at underfunded institutions, when curation and maintenance budgets are cut, collections care inevitably suffers.
Let's remember that funding of museums, libraries and archives should not be a partisan issue. After all, it was former President George W. Bush who said, in an official statement on National Library Week: "An educated citizenry provides the foundation for a free and democratic society. Libraries promote the sharing of knowledge … . These dynamic and modern institutions, and the librarians who staff them, add immeasurably to our quality of life."
Here in the United States, we can learn from recent events overseas about the value of cultural heritage institutions.
In Tunisia, as The Los Angeles Times reported in April, citizens safeguarded government records against possible attempts to remove or destroy them and thereby tamper with the historical record. The article quoted an archives staffer who stated eloquently, "Protect the documents as you protect your cities." It's a powerful reminder that archives and museum collections tell us who we are, as peoples and cultures, as well as in the legal sense.
And after the Egyptian Museum thefts, Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass made it clear that vandals had done the looting, not the people of Egypt. The BBC quoted him as saying, "Not a single thing has been thrown at the museum by the thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square, because these people do not want to damage their cultural heritage."
In our current atmosphere of indiscriminate budget-cutting, can we Americans say the same about ourselves?
Erica Olsen divides her time between Blanding, Utah, and Dolores, Colo., where she is a grant-funded contractor in curation at the Anasazi Heritage Center. She is a former grant-funded archivist at Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding. The views in this column are her own.