The flags still wave on the California State Military Museum website, but the venerable chronicler of the state’s military history has quietly closed its doors amid fights over budget and turf.
The Sacramento Bee reported last week that the three-story museum in the state’s capital is closed and the 43-year marriage of convenience between the foundation that ran it and the California Military Department, which funded much of it, was foundering.
Although the man who ran the Military Department from 1987-1992, Major General Robert Thrasher (retired), called the museum “kind of like the Smithsonian of Sacramento,” it is not, anymore than the city’s fine Crocker Art Museum is like the Louvre. But the museum does have its fans, including 467 Twitter followers who read of its closure on February 26.
When lawmakers and the administration of Republican Governor Pete Wilson created the museum in 1991, California’s Military and Veterans Code, Section 179 put the non-profit California State Military Museum Foundation in charge of running it. The foundation handled operations and donations, which have been substantial. The museum has more than 33,000 artifacts, a 20,000-volume library and a substantial archive.
But around 18 months ago, the department indicated that it wanted direct control of the museum’s resources and said the donations belonged to the state. The foundation disagreed and the Military Department cut off their money and sued them in Sacramento County Superior Court in September. The state claims it owns 90% of the artifacts.
The foundation argued that the law specifically names it as the museum operator with a list of its responsibilities. And it did—until last week when the Legislature changed the law and Governor Brown signed a new pact that doesn’t mention the foundation at all. Instead, the Adjutant General is empowered “to enter into operating agreements with nonprofit historical foundations, military museums, historical societies or other entities.”
The new law does not preclude the department from having a relationship with the foundation, but it clearly puts the department in charge. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t settle who owns the materials at the museum and three satellite facilities.
If the court rules in favor of the foundation, the state will have a museum with very little to display.
In November, Superior Court Judge Raymond M. Cadei denied a request by the state for a temporary restraining order that would have given it substantial control of the museum’s operations, but noted that the state was “reasonably likely to prevail on the merits.” He didn’t seem to think much of claims by the state that all the guns at the museum posed a threat to public safety or there was a danger that the foundation would sell everything quickly.
The judge did note, however, the case was essentially about property rights and “the parties’ current contract appears to contemplate the Foundation’s ownership of some historical property.”
How much the new law affects that determination remains to be seen.