McFarland Center curates 1.2 million artifacts.

McFarland Curatorial Center transfers to Montana Heritage Commission

McFarland Center curates 1.2 million artifacts

VIRGINIA CITY—Two weeks ago, the Montana History Foundation facilitated the transfer of the Lee C. McFarland Curatorial Center into the ownership of the Montana Heritage Commission, which oversees the artifacts, curation and preservation of Virginia City and Nevada City. 

The transfer is nominal in the sense that the Heritage Commission has used the facility for artifacts for many years. The center houses historical items, but its primary use and the purpose of most of its space is preservation. 

“That’s what cool about the curatorial center; it’s not just a storage center,” says Anna Strange, community outreach coordinator for the Montana History Foundation. “They bring in artifacts to make sure they’re staying intact as long as possible. That’s really the purpose of the center: to preserve these things and make sure they stay in good shape.”

The McFarland Curatorial Center was built in 1999, made possible by a $1 million donation from Ruth McFarland in her late husband’s memory. Ruth McFarland, who passed away in 2017, stipulated that the facility would belong to the state of Montana in perpetuity. Before the Center was built, there were no nearby climate-controlled buildings that could house sensitive artifacts and century-old photographs and documents, says museum technician Marge Antolik. 

When a huge donation came from the estate of Charles and Sue Bovey, who are credited with making Virginia City the destination it is today, some artifacts had to be sent to other cities because there was nowhere to preserve them. Now, all the area’s artifacts can be kept locally for care and preservation.

“Charlie and Sue Bovey wanted to make their collection accessible to the people, and we’re able to do that,” says Antolik. “Ruth giving her money to have this built was a huge step toward being able to preserve things here in Virginia City without having to send them out.”

Projects like this are part of the Montana History Foundation’s mission. They also provide grants for preservation work like that of the McFarland Center. When extensive repairs or refurbishment is needed on an artifact, the Center hires expert conservators to assist, using money from a couple of significant donors and grants supplied by both the Foundation and the Montana Preservation Association. 

Antolik says the Center also received some money from the state legislature last year to aid preservation efforts. Over the years, thousands of volunteer hours have been donated as well, including the work of Rhodes scholars, AmeriCorps volunteers and visitors so dedicated they fly from as far away as Alaska every summer just to help.

The plot of land on which the center sits was already state-owned; with the transfer, the ownership of the building, its fixtures and everything inside it shifts to the Heritage Commission, which is a state-owned entity. 

The Montana Heritage Commission, while a state entity, is also a nonprofit organization. The Commission has been paying rent to use the curatorial center, which executive director Elijah Allen says is the largest such facility in the state, responsible for the care of over a million artifacts between Virginia City, Nevada City and the Reeder’s Alley district in downtown Helena. 

It’s an important resource for the communities of Virginia City and Nevada City, because it is not something many other communities have, especially communities of that size. But many people drive right by, not realizing what it is or what it does.

“It is certainly one of our most overlooked and underutilized resources in the county,” says Leona Stredwick, county planner and one of Nevada City’s lead living history interpreters. “It was a crown jewel of the county when they built it.”

Nevada City is essentially a living museum, and since so many visitors interact with the artifacts in person, many of the items on display are reproductions or replicas. But, Stredwick says, the Curatorial Center has done repairs in the past when interpreters’ genuine period costumes have begun to fall apart, or when new items were discovered with extraordinary value. As the Heritage Commission gains new artifacts every year, there is a constant demand for the cataloging and research to determine the items’ stories and their future. 

Because of the nuances of being both a state-run program and a nonprofit, the Heritage Commission does not receive its funding from the state’s general fund or general tax revenue. Its operational budget is funded by bed taxes and the visitation fees of the thousands of tourists who come through Virginia and Nevada cities every year, as well as grants and private donations like the one Ruth McFarland made back in the 1990s.

As a result of the transfer, maintenance fees and upkeep of the facility will fall to the Heritage Commission. Antolik says that most of the “bills” are now theirs, but most of those were already being paid by the Commission as tenants of the building. 

The MHC will continue to utilize the McFarland Center as it has in the past, offering educational programs and displays along with its preservation efforts. The McFarland Curatorial Center is also open for visitors to tour Monday through Thursday, where they can view some of the artifacts and meet the curators.

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