Calculate attendance figures for history museums in the United States


In 1836, the chapel of the Mission San Antonio de Valero, commonly known as “the Alamo” was the site of a notable battle of the Texas Revolution (photo by the author)

FRANKLIN, Tenn – Last month, Seph Rodney posted “Are Art Museum Attendance Down Across the United States?” Rodney’s post intrigued me, not only because of its subject matter, but also because it clearly defined his argument around art museums and not museums as a whole. While attendance at U.S. cultural institutions may be on the decline, art museums make up only about 4.5% of U.S. museums, according to data from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS, the federal agency responsible for collecting this information). Historical institutions, on the other hand, make up about 55.5% of the American museum community, with an additional 33% identifying themselves as “general” museums – many of which, I’m sure, also contain quantities. important history. (For the purposes of this blog post, I’m using the IMLS eligibility criteria for grant-seeking institutions: “Museums include, but are not limited to, aquariums, arboretums, art museums , botanical gardens, children’s / youth museums, general museums, houses / sites, history museums, natural history / anthropology museums, nature centers, planetariums, science / technology centers, specialized museums and parks zoological. ”)

As someone who has worked in the field of history museums for the past two decades, I very much appreciated that Rodney specifically disclosed the data for art museums. I have observed in recent years that many commentators often confuse “museum” with “art museum”. This sends a misleading message to the museum community and to the American public. One wonders if the trends in art museums reflect the American museum community as a whole, and what data exists that supports or disproves this notion?

The Kentucky Historical Society located in Frankfort, Kentucky, which has a stated mission “to educate and engage the public throughout Kentucky history in order to meet the challenges of the future” (Image courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society)

Rodney’s post looked at art museum attendance based on the National Endowment for the Arts’ Public Arts Participation Survey, which tracked an overall decline of about 20% in museum attendance. art from 2002 to 2012. But given that 95% of American museums are not art museums, we cannot automatically assume that their attendance problems reflect all museums. Understanding this led me to research trend data for historical institutions nationwide (which also includes museums, historic sites, and historic homes) – organizations that people have the most immediate access to. because of their ubiquity.

While there are data available, a comprehensive study like the one Rodney cited is lacking for the field of history museums. The NEA survey – primarily targeting participation in the arts – indicates a decline in attendance at historic sites only (not museums), which the American Academy of Arts and Sciences tracks in its humanities indicators. The indicators show worrying trends:

  • “In 2012, 24% of Americans aged 18 and over had visited a historic site in the past year. This was 13 percentage points lower than in 1982, with most of the decline occurring from 2002 to 2012. “
  • “As they got older, people were less likely to visit a historic site. “

In short, Americans were at 50% less likely visit a historic site in 2012 than they were in 1982! (This information is now at least five years old.)

Colonial Williamsburg, perhaps the country’s most famous open-air history museum, whose name likely rivals that of the Smithsonian, reflects this trend. It has long struggled with attendance, dropping from an annual high of one million visitors in the 1980s to less than half a million in 2016, according to the Virginia Gazette. However, two of its peer organizations have reported attendance gains recently: 8.7% in 2017 for Conner Prairie in Fishers, Indiana and 5% in 2016 for The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan. Reports are also good from 507 national respondents to a survey conducted by Edge Research on behalf of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In it, 62% reported an increase in the number of visitors over the past five years, and 24% reported no change. In the past twelve months, 42% of attendance gains were linked, of which 45% showed no change. But this measure, like the Humanities Indicators report, only examines historic sites, which means museums with high annual attendance such as the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum or Rochester’s Strong National Museum of Play are not included. in the study.

The Themed Entertainment Association’s 2016 TEA / AECOM Theme Index and Museum Index: Global Attraction Attendance Report shares a list of the top 20 most visited museums in the United States. I identify four as history-oriented museums: the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History, and the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Of the four, Air and Space, which many consider a science museum, saw an 8.7% increase in attendance, the Holocaust Museum and Udvar-Hazy have not changed, and the National Museum of American History fell 7.3%. Overall, however, the history museums on this list saw a net gain of 300,000 visitors. But these represent only four of the estimated 18,315 organizations that ILSS counts as history museums. So, we have four of America’s most visited history museums showing a collective net annual gain, two of the top three outdoor historic sites citing recent annual gains, and only 14% of historic sites in a recent study showing a decline.

One thing is however very clear. According to my colleague Colleen Dilenschneider, Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development, a data and technology company, museum attendance as a whole (art, history or otherwise) does not follow the population of the United States. IMPACTS followed 224 organizations serving visitors and is conducting an ongoing study with more than 108,000 representative participants in the United States. Their latest findings: a clear loss of attendance due to negative substitution. “For every historic visitor who leaves the US market (due to death, relocation, or migration),” writes Dilenschneider, “they’re replaced by just 0.948 of a person.” This means that in just three cycles of visits, a museum with 1 million visitors would see 948,000 in 2018, 899,000 in 2019, etc.

Does size matter when it comes to the attendance issues museums face? Of the 18,000+ history museums in this country, half of them, according to the American Association for State and Local History, have budgets of less than $ 250,000 per year, with another half with budgets. annuals of less than $ 50,000. Few, if any, of these are factored into the information I found, although Dilenschneider’s research shows very little difference between the type of person who visits a smaller and a larger museum. The data also shows that history museums attract a similar visitor to art museums (which validates my long-held intuition that museum buffs are museum buffs).

Statue of General John Buford at Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (author photo)

Research by fellow colleague Susie Wilkening of Wilkening Consulting shows young adults are still around 50% more likely have visited a museum (of any type) during the previous year older adults. This indicates that museums have the opportunity to increase their audiences, but only if they maintain lifelong engagement of visitors by providing valued experiences.

Perhaps then, the question is not whether or not attendance is late in American museums, but rather why, and what can and should be done to remedy the delay.

Engagement, I believe, is the most important issue. I have long been baffled by the inability of the museum field to measure its public value beyond attendance and membership or economic metrics (which are doing very well according to a recent American Alliance study. of Museums). I wrote my masters thesis on the topic of civic engagement / public value and have written about it several times lately: Measuring effectiveness and will we ever effectively measure the public value of museums?

Weaker attendance is a concern, but social engagement is more of a concern to me. Perhaps the lower attendance rates reported by the NEA for art museums – the institutions for which we have the most reliable data – are due to these institutions not delivering what their audiences want and / or value the most.

In his article that inspired this response, Rodney wrote:

[Th]There is some evidence that people are less and less inclined to visit museums and galleries, and for those of us (like me) who are invested in these institutions as one of the main bulwarks against the pervasive colonization of civic space and engagement through the relentless commodification of experience is discouraging news.

It is indeed.

But there is hope. And that hope does not lie only in art museums in the United States, but in the whole experience that American museums of all types offer our citizens to engage more deeply in the humanities. As the philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum wrote in 2010, these explorations represent,

the powers of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich in human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation. When we meet in society, if we have not learned to see both ourselves and others in this way, to imagine inner faculties of thought and emotion in each other, democracy is doomed to loom large. Failure, because democracy is built on respect and self-interest, and these in turn rely on the ability to see others as human beings, not just objects.

Americans understand that museums offer these experiences (a recent study by Wilkening Consulting and the American Alliance of Museums has proven this). Museums should build on this understanding and increase value locally, more than we should bemoan the decline in attendance at large institutions.

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