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Museum's hidden treasures share cramped space


By Walt Williams -- Bozeman Daily Chronicle

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Locked away behind a bank vault door in the basement of the Montana Historical Society may be some of the most historically significant art in the state.

Western artist Charlie Russell is well represented at the museum located just east of the Capitol building in Helena. Many of the Russell pieces are personal - letters to friends illustrated with cowboys on horseback; a Christmas greeting with a cowboy holding what appears to be a beer bottle in salute.

A gold frame holds a rough painting of bison climbing over a rise in the landscape, a study for what would become the artist's masterpiece: ''When the Land Belonged to God.''

Russell's works, however, only make up a small fraction of the art stored in the room. In one corner, a wood carving of a grizzly bear rears up on its hind legs. Above the carving, shelves are lined with smaller carvings of antelope, mountain goats and other animals.

All were carved by Blackfeet artist John Clarke, who sold his works to tourists visiting Glacier National Park. Several portraits of American Indians hang nearby, all painted from life by artist Joe Scheuerle during a visit to Montana in the early 1900s.

The MHS has more than 60,000 items in its museum collection. But like all museums, it does not have nearly enough space to display them, so most of the pieces are stored in vaults to be used for research, education or book illustrations, or occasionally loaned out to other museums.

''It's like an iceberg; less than 10 percent is [on display] at any one time,'' Tom Cook, public relations director for the museum, said.

In another room of the basement, furniture is stacked up on large shelves with white sheets draped over the chairs, cabinets and tables to keep the dust off and prevent scratching.

Close by is an eclectic mix of items, such as a 1928 slot machine, a 1946 homemade dogsled and the skis that photographer F.J. Haynes used when taking some of the first pictures of Yellowstone National Park at the beginning of the 20th century.

The museum's large collection of vintage clothing is kept on cushioned hangers in large, makeshift closets; sheets of white muslin cover the closet openings. The material allows air to circulate, but keeps out dust and dirt, said Susan Near, director of museum services.

''We have a lot of jobs,'' she said. ''We acquire pieces. We have the job of taking care of pieces which involved preservation and conservation.''

How some of those pieces are stored is important. For example, the museum used to keep the pipes and stems of ceremonial American Indian pipes together until it was pointed out by local tribes that the pipes were only supposed to be assembled during ceremonies. Now the stems and pipes are stored separately.

The museum also is responsible for storing government and private records, including most of the state's financial records. And it also has an extensive collection of photography, with some photos dating as far back as the late 19th century.

The MHS is currently searching for a new building to house the museum, one that provides more space for displays and for storage.

It would be a mistake to think that the items stored are just collecting dust, according to Near. The photographs and records are available to the public, and often the art and other items in storage end up as llustrations in textbooks.

''A lot of times people say, 'Well, they just have stuff in the basement and they're not doing anything with it,''' she said. ''That's not true. They don't see it out on exhibit and they think were not using it.''