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
Twelve years and 502 blogs ago, I began “Time Tells” – my little blog about heritage conservation, architecture, planning, technology and economics. I have moved three times in those dozen years and now live in San Antonio, one of the pioneering preservation places in the United States.
Last week. Maybe next week too.
It has been 13 months since I last blogged about the Farnsworth House (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1951). In that blog I detailed the various options that had been studied to try to conserve the house despite the increased flooding of the Fox River at its location near Plano, Illinois. Continue Reading
President Lincoln’s Cottage, Washington DC
Last week in this blog I presented some concepts on how we can create a more democratic, diverse and inclusive heritage conservation in the United States, largely by applying the lessons of international heritage conservation over the last twenty years, notably the Burra Charter. Preservation is a process, not a set of rules. Continue Reading
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou are more lovely and more tempered…
I have been involved with Mies van der Rohe’s famous Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois for over a decade. I recall vividly the day (December 12, 2003) Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation successfully bid on the house at Sotheby’s in New York, saving it from the possibility of being dismantled and moved to another place. Like all great architecture, the Farnsworth House was designed for its specific location along the Fox River, and this context is part of its significance. Continue Reading
I was at a meeting of the National Trust and several citizen preservation groups in Monterey concerned about the future of the Cooper-Molera Adobe, a house museum in Monterey, one of the treasures of California’s Spanish capitol. I blogged about Cooper-Molera two and a half years ago here, and what I said remains true – the site has been largely shuttered due to state budget cuts, cuts which are not going to be reversed.
When the National Trust announced it was working with a developer to come up with restaurant and other commercial uses at the site, there was a fair amount of community uproar, especially among volunteers who felt the site should stay interpretive. And this debate: “Commercial versus Interpretive” was still active when I was there last month. And it is a false dichotomy. This is NOT an either-or situation. It is a both-and situation. Continue Reading
with Anthea M. Hartig, PhD
My friend and colleague Dr. Anthea Hartig, who last year became the Executive Director of the California Historical Society, asked the provocative question: What is a Historical Society in the 21st Century? Good question. What does it mean? And what has it meant? I asked for her help answering this question and got it…. Continue Reading
An article in the Washington Post yesterday described the economic challenges facing great European landmarks and how many are turning to corporate sponsorships and licensing deals to help defray the costs of maintaining ancient buildings. This practice in turn has caused criticism from those who feel it is wrong to “sell” your collective heritage. Continue Reading
In the past I have written about the challenge of house museums. See House Museums and Ultimate Use. Almost a decade ago, the National Trust – which was basically created by Congress in the 1940s in order to receive houses and turn them into museums – started to discuss the end of the house museum as we know it. No more velvet ropes and stilted ossified stories of wealthy Victorians and the silver service they used when the Admiral visited. Continue Reading