Does Living History Have A Future?

September 18, 2018 Blog, Economics, House Museums, House Museums, Interpretation Comments (0) 125

In the 1950s, Colonial Williamsburg was the number one tourist attraction in the United States.  Its “living history” displays within the carefully curated town landscape were a novel attraction, and many other sites across the U.S. from Mystic Seaport to Lincoln’s New Salem followed their lead.  It was the dawn of television and big-finned automobiles: living history was hot.

That was seventy years ago.  Last year, Colonial Williamsburg reported it had lost $277 million in five years, laid off 71 staff and sold properties to avoid further hits against its endowment.  This summer it celebrated avoiding layoffs and reducing its debt to $317 million.  Conner Prairie in Indiana boasts of 11 years of breaking even after an economic debacle in the early 2000s.  Old Sturbridge Village brings in $2 million in admissions but breaks even on a $12 million budget thanks to investments, property sales, and major gifts.  Plimoth Plantation has seen ticket sales drop 30% in the last 30 years and now has a labor dispute with its suddenly unionized interpreters.  Civil War reenactments draw a fraction of the spectators they did in their 1990s heyday.  Living history is no longer hot.

Don’t get me started on the coureurs de bois

Sound management is helping Colonial Williamsburg and Sturbridge Village and Conner Prairie survive, but are they thriving?  Clever programming has some sites increasing attendance, but none are approaching the quantities of visitors found in the heyday of living history in the 20th century.  Premier sites like Colonial Williamsburg or Ironbridge Gorge in England draw half a million visitors a year.  But they used to draw twice that.  $20 million in admissions might seem like a lot until you compare it to an annual operating deficit of $50 million.

good old days in New Jersey

The advent of the Millennial generation, whose interactions with the physical world are mediated through smartphones, raises the question:  Is there a future for living history?  The demographics are worrying:  In 2012 20.5% of Americans 18-24 visited a historic site, down 8 percentage points since 2002.

with Inn four miles of Denver

Many sites have raised ticket prices to overcome declining attendance and Colonial Williamsburg is considering building a fence around the site to capture more ticket sales.  Some sites excel with school groups, but school groups rarely pay, exacerbating the economic challenge.

There are positive reports from some sites about developing more “immersive” experiences that appeal to more people.  This runs counter to the trend in house museums, where the guided tour and costumed interpreter have given place to the self-guided tour.

It isn’t simply generational – it is also technology.  For 30 years, technology has been giving individuals more control (at whatever quality) over printing, photography, navigation, communication, and determining how you spend your day.  Most tourists today expect to control their experience in a way unimaginable 30 years ago.

In the next five years we will learn whether a new generation wants to witness and interact with costumed interpreters or just keep their finger on the pulse of their smartphone.

Does Living History have a future?  And how much will it cost?

Sources and Further Reading:
“Historic Sites Face Modern Day Pressures” Virginia Gazette, September 16, 2018
“The Decline of the Civil War Re-enactor” New York Times Magazine, July 28, 2018
“Americans Declining Interest in History is Hitting Museums Like Colonial Williamsburg Hard” The Federalist, August 22, 2017.
“Colonial Williamsburg is still $317 million in debt, but things are looking up”  The Virginian Pilot September 15, 2018
“CEO: Colonial Williamsburg’s financial outlook improves; no layoffs planned.”  Daily Express, September 16, 2018
Old Sturbridge Village 2016 Annual Report
Conner Prairie 2016 Annual Report

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