It’s hard to know who your friends are these days. Take the Ravalli County Museum, for instance. Make that, the Bitterroot Valley Museum—or is it the Friends of the Ravalli County Museum?
The museum, an excellent example of 19th-century western architecture, sits on the grounds of the Ravalli County Courthouse and until recently housed an impressive collection of American Indian artifacts.
But friendships fractured over that collection and now two groups of history buffs have gone their separate ways, with one group taking the museum name—or more accurately, names—with them.
The problem unfolded over several months when Hamilton man Jim Dullenty began questioning the whereabouts of several hundred loaned artifacts, including a number of beaded Salish moccasins and purses, belong to the Twogood family, an old-time Bitterroot family.
According to Dullenty, the museum staff and volunteers were irresponsible in their handling of the artifacts and either lost or misplaced 213 items. So he decided to “do something about it.” What he did was to register three names with the Montana secretary of state: Friends of the Museum, Friends of the Ravalli County Museum and Friends of the Bitterroot Valley Museum.
Owning the names legally, Dullenty says, will provide him with a springboard to seize control of the museum’s management and change it.
Helen Ann Bibler, museum director since 1990, says nothing is as clear cut as Dullenty makes it out to be. The Twogood collection was loaned to the museum many years before her tenure, she says. Handwritten records are vague and loan agreements were never signed by either the family or the museum, so it’s hard to know what, precisely, belonged to the Twogoods and what belonged to the museum. The missing artifacts may have been removed from the museum by family members over the years, she says.
The problem now is the issue over the names. Last month the museum’s historical society took up the matter with the secretary of state, and were disappointed when he awarded the names to Dullenty who, in the eyes of the historical society, is certainly no friend of the museum.
The ruling is odd, says museum attorney Jennifer Boatwright, since there are no doubt other “friends of the museum” elsewhere in Montana who will be surprised to learn that someone actually has exclusive legal right to that name. “Does the secretary of state mean to suggest I could run in and register my law firm under another [lawyer’s unregistered] name?”
The Ravalli County Museum—the actual one in Hamilton, not Dullenty’s registered name—won’t challenge the secretary of state’s decision. Bibler says she’s already registered a new one: Friends of the Bitter Root Valley Historical Society.