Planned shutdown of museums reflects state shortfalls

Renoites gathered in the gutted former city hall for a ceremony launching a children’s museum in the city.

Renoites gathered in the gutted former city hall for a ceremony launching a children’s museum in the city.


“It’s the first thing we’ve built for kids in this town since the little railroad in Idlewild,” said Reno attorney Paul Bible.

He was attending the “groundbreaking” of the Nevada Discovery Museum, a children’s museum in Reno that will be installed in the former Reno City Hall Building at Center and Stewart streets (see “The more you know").

The new museum, privately created and funded, is expected to open in late 2011 or 2012.

But as one door opens, others may be closing. State capital sources say the Gibbons administration has laid plans for shutting down most of the state’s museums.

The proposal, drawn up at the direction of state budgeters for use if the economy continues at its present pace, would recommend that legislators keep open the two Nevada State Museums in Carson City and Las Vegas and the Boulder City Railroad Museum. But it would ask legislators to close the Lost City Museum in Overton, the East Ely Railroad Depot Museum, and one of either the Nevada Historical Society in Reno or the Nevada Railroad Museum in Carson City. The Boulder City facility is the only revenue producer among the group of seven.

Assemblymember Sheila Leslie, a veteran member of the Assembly’s budget committee, said the dramatic cuts will likely be only the start.

“I think this is the beginning of the end, possibly for all of the state museums. You know, I think it’s just despicable. … I think it’s going to be much worse if, indeed, we’re not able to raise revenue. It will be even worse than this. I think potentially all the museums will be closing because if we’re trying to meet a $3 billion shortfall, we’re going to have to fund programs that are absolutely mandated. That means prisons, Medicaid.”

It’s not clear if the state even knows how to shut down the museums, which contain property belonging to the public. (Gibbons budget director Andrew Clinger, who must build the state budget recommendations in these hard times, was not available for comment.) Shutting them down would not be cheap.

“What do you do with the assets?” asked one source. “What do you do with the collection? What do you do with the artifacts? What do you do with the physical plant?”

Leslie said the state brushed up against a similar problem at the 2009 Nevada Legislature.

“We looked at shutting down the state parks as a cost-cutting measure last time and, you know, you have to do some maintenance and security to protect your assets,” she said. “So we ended up raising fees and I think cutting hours as well. But now we’re just to the point if we can’t keep facilities open, what do we do? The door is open. What do we do? … Do we just put them in a warehouse and put a lock on the door? I mean, these are horrible decisions. To me this is beyond heartbreaking.”

Some museum items need to be stored in climate-controlled facilities. Some of them are nearly priceless and would require security and insurance.

The museums are already struggling.

“Due to major budget reductions by the Nevada State Legislature, the Board of Museums and History increased admission fees effective March 2010 to help support our museums,” reads the website of the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas. The site of the Nevada Historical Society has this message: “Due to mandatory state budget restrictions, the Society is closed Sunday - Tuesday.”

State museums are generally for residents, not tourists. Among tourism experts, museums are not considered tourist magnets. That is, tourists have not generally been known to travel to see the advertising museum in Portland (now closed) or the automobile museum in Reno or the fire museum in Phoenix. There are exceptions, such as the Smithsonian or Dallas’s book depository, but those special characteristics do not generally apply to state museums, which are created mainly for the citizens of their states. (One private museum, the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, will shut down next month after three decades of operation.)

State legislators say the plans for the museums are jarring because if such deep cuts are planned for a program with as much public appeal as the state’s museums, it is likely happening to other programs with less visibility all through government. (The budget-development process is secret.) One Gibbons administration source, speaking of state government, said, “It’s going to look like the turkey in the fridge a week after Thanksgiving.”

“We’re now going to absolutely close programs and facilities, whereas before we cut back hours in the last few rounds,” Leslie said,

State legislators in both parties have told her they want these kinds of budget plans disclosed now so that the public can have a say in the difficult choices and also have some sense of the depth of problems the state faces.

“I wish this information would become public so that during campaign season we could have debates on it,” Leslie said. “I’ve called on the Gibbons administration to release those figures as soon as possible. … And remember, this is only 10 percent [cuts]. What if we have to have it 25 percent? What if 50 percent? I think the public has a right to know what the impact of these cuts will be.”

There will be a new governor when the budget now under preparation goes to the legislature, but it takes months to prepare a state budget, and the new governor will only be able to tinker with the Gibbons plan. The two major party nominees, Democrat Rory Reid and Republican Brian Sandoval, have both ruled out tax increases. Former Nevada governor Bob Miller recently disclosed that he and two other former governors—Richard Bryan and the late Kenny Guinn, who died July 22—have been doing missionary work among state businesspeople, urging them to give the two candidates political cover when they are forced to back away from those promises, which Miller said is certain to happen.

Nevada got started late in preserving its history and building facilities to put it in. Statehood came in 1864. The historical society was privately created four decades later, in 1904, then became a state agency. It is the state’s oldest historical agency. The Nevada State Archives was not created until after the state centennial in 1964. Vast amounts of the physical evidence of state history were lost before the state got involved. Some of the historical material still being gathered concerns history that is fresh in the memory of residents, that, indeed, they may have had a hand in.

This overlap was neatly illustrated by a guest of honor at the children’s museum ceremony in Reno—actress Dawn Wells, who is aiding the effort to create the facility.

The Nevada Railroad Museum in Carson City was originally called the Virginia and Truckee Railroad Museum, after the Virginia City-Carson City-Reno line that operated from 1869 to 1950 (unrelated to the current tourist railway of the same name), and the museum still has a strong emphasis on the storied V&T, a railroad that was shut down over the protests of locals.

As an 11-year-old, on May 31, 1950, Wells rode the last run of the V&T.