Story last updated at 1:20 p.m. Saturday, August 31, 2002

Pratt deserves separate city budget consideration
Michael Hawfield
Recently, Homer City Council passed a resolution creating a separate line item for the Pratt Museum in the annual municipal operating fund. As Councilman Ladd's resolution makes clear, there are many reasons for recognizing the museum as a unique community resource worthy of line-item support: the city's 35-year investment in the facility, the Pratt's statewide and national reputation, its strong local economic impact.

Two central issues, however, lie at the heart of any rationale for highlighting the museum as a separate item on the city budget: the original foundation of the museum, and its collections.

The Pratt Museum was founded in 1967 as our community's Centennial Project. This was a joint project of the City of Homer in partnership with the Homer Society of Natural History. The original written agreement between the city and the society states clearly that municipal funds and other resources would be used to create the museum, and the society would operate it.

Should the society ever fail to be able to operate the museum, the city would be obliged to do so. The goal was to create a unique institution that, at the time, no other community in Alaska had: a museum.

Folks back then and in the succeeding years did a good job. Today, the Pratt Museum is one of only six Alaska museums that is professionally accredited, and by every criteria for quality it is ranked in the top ten percent of all museums nationally.

What lies at the heart of the museum's unique place in our community and its unique partnership with the city, however, are its collections. Today, the museum maintains irreplaceable collections that contain tens of thousands of objects, documents and photographs that represent the heritage of our community.

The objects range from the tiniest man-made artifacts or most fragile natural specimens to large boats, buildings and one of the nation's largest collection of fully assembled skeletons of sea mammals. All have been collected over the years thanks to volunteers of our community.

These collections are exceedingly special. They represent one-of-a-kind or outstanding examples of the rich heritage of our community, ranging from the rarest items, such as the state's only remains of the extinct Steller sea cow, and some of Alaska's oldest human tools, to thousands of everyday items that represent homesteading, fishing, family life, schools, churches, city development (real and imagined), and every group of people that has called the southern Kenai home. This is a tall order, and it continues to grow.

There is an obligation that goes with maintaining all these items. These collections are not what you or I might stuff away in our attic, shed or crawl space. They have been carefully selected for inclusion in the museum collections, and once in the collections, the museum is legally bound to take care of these objects and specimens in perpetuity.

Because of its unique community service role, the museum cannot simply dispose of items. It cannot neglect the care and storage of items. It cannot withhold items from the public. In short, the museum operates under a mandate -- a legal obligation -- to develop and expend resources to collect, house, record, conserve and make accessible a huge variety of items as a public trust.

To do this, the museum spends more than $150,000 each year in supplies, equipment and related staff, building, environmental and storage expenses. These are basic operating funds not generally available through grants, this is not a part of the museum function that the Pratt can simply choose not to do.

It can indeed choose not to do exhibits, or not to do programs and workshops, or choose not to do field trips, services that grant income does support, but it cannot neglect the collections. The museum must hold, preserve, and maintain them to the best of its ability and, like our library, make them accessible to the public. This is fundamental to the very definition of "museum," and it is, above all else, what sets the museum apart from all other organizations and institutions in our community and makes its partnership with the city unique.

There is nothing that is new about the Pratt Museum being a line item in the city budget. It has been in the municipal budget since its inception.

In the 1970s, when Councilman Don Ronda first proposed direct funding assistance to the museum, he emphasized the need to care for collections. When city voters passed a referendum in 1979 to support the museum financially, it was to support care of collections. Over the years, additional city council resolutions supporting the museum have also focused on the collections as a central concern.

Being lumped in with a general group of nonprofit organizations, no matter how valuable and worthwhile they may be, not only obscures the museum's unique relationship with the city, but also the central, mandated obligations of the museum to care for the community's collections and the community's facility. The museum continues to value its relations with other community cultural, service and arts organizations and looks to its fellow nonprofit organizations for partnerships in programming that sustain the cultural and educational values of our community.

Line-item city support for the museum's core function of collections management, however, is necessary in order to enable the Pratt to carry out its mandated, obligatory role, as jointly established with the city nearly 35 years ago, of collecting and preserving the community's natural, cultural and artistic heritage.

Michael Hawfield has been the director of the Pratt Museum since 1997 and is president of Museums Alaska, the state's professional museum organization.