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A lit walkway shows the path to the state's two history museums, the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, in Jackson, Miss. The two side-by-side museums opened Dec. 9, 2017, providing the public a critical view to the state's often controversial past.

Analysis: Budget increase sought amid popularity of museums

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

The Mississippi Department of Archives and History receives a small slice of the state budget. But, with two new museums already gaining international attention, the department plays a large role in shaping the public perception of the state.

The Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, two entities under a single roof, opened with a public celebration Dec. 9, the eve of the bicentennial of statehood.

About 10,000 people toured the museums the first weekend. Another 25,000 or so visited during the subsequent three weeks in December. Hundreds of groups, including many from schools, are on the schedule for the next few months at the museums, which are near the state Capitol in downtown Jackson.

Katie Blount, the department’s executive director, is asking the Legislature for a budget increase for fiscal year 2019, which begins July 1.

“In good faith with the Legislature, we had requested funding for only a skeleton staff for FY2018 — the minimum number of people that would allow us to open the museums and welcome the public,” Blount said Wednesday in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman. “Because of the tremendous public response, the staff is already stretched too thin, particularly at the front desk.”

Mississippi’s current state budget is about $6 billion. That covers big-ticket items such as public education and Medicaid. It also covers smaller agencies such as the Department of Archives and History, which is receiving about $8.6 million.

The overall state budget for the coming year is expected to be slightly smaller than $6 billion. Archives and History is requesting just over $9.7 million.

Like other state agency directors, Blount said she is trying to retain employees who could make more money by going to private sector jobs. She described the Archives and History staff as “smart, passionate, dedicated people.”

The department is not relying on state support alone. It raised millions of dollars in private contributions to supplement the state money to build the museums. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation contributed $2.3 million to help fund construction, and its director, LaJune Montgomery Tabron, announced at the museums’ opening that the foundation is providing $1 million to help school groups pay for students to visit the museums.

The Kellogg Foundation provided free admission to the general public to the two museums Saturday, Jan. 13, through Tuesday, Jan. 16. This coincides with the holiday on Monday observing the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King. The day after King day is what the foundation last year started calling the National Day of Racial Healing.

“The museums tell powerful stories about our state’s past and how the racial hierarchies in Mississippi in particular have impacted everything from our education system to our economy,” Rhea Williams-Bishop, director of Mississippi programming for the Kellogg Foundation, said in a news release. “The National Day of Racial Healing helps us come together and develop a shared understanding of our history, as an important step in healing and moving us toward a stronger future for our children.”

Senators who listened to Blount’s budget request during an Appropriations subcommittee meeting last week seemed open to the request for more money, though the hard budget decisions are still more than two months away. They asked several questions about the two history museums.

“I see this as being a big draw for the foreseeable future,” said Republican Sen. Briggs Hopson of Vicksburg.

Blount said employees from other divisions within the Department of Archives and History have been working in the museums to keep up with public demand.

“The museums are absolutely the highest priority,” Blount said.

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Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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