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
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
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
A month ago I posted about visiting three National Trust historic sites on the east coast, and last week I was on the opposite coast visiting our California sites, Filoli in Woodside, California, and Cooper-Molera Adobe in Monterey. I also got the chance to tour the famed Gamble House in Pasadena and I am including it here, since the Trust does not (YET) have a site in Southern California.
Filoli has an interesting history, insofar as its GARDENS were donated to the Trust by Lurline Roth in 1975, and there is still a great focus on the gardens, which cover some 16 acres and employ over 1,300 volunteers! There is also a successful garden shop and the site has maintained that attraction for Bay Area residents. Continue Reading
Hull House Museum reopened September 9 with a day-long celebration that started at Noon in Daley Plaza, celebrating the 150th birthday of Nobel-prize winning social activist and Hull House founder Jane Addams.
Come see what Lisa Lee and Mike Plummer (and my good friend Bob Johnson, who redid the interior) have done with the interpretation, which I reviewed last night:
IT’S GREAT! There is an openness to the overall design that is inviting and a contrast to the ancient stereotype of the house museum. It also more realistically conveys the use of the house, which was full of people and activities, and not a traditional Victorian house. Continue Reading
We held the retirement party for longtime National Trust President Richard Moe at President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., one of the newest National Trust historic sites and a fitting place to pay tribute to a leader who helped transform the preservation movement into a vital, relevant force for how people decide the future of their communities in this country. Dick Moe took a collection of mansions and made it a representation of our multiple cultures, from Acoma Sky Pueblo to the East Side Tenement Museum, from Tuoro Synagogue to the Gaylord Building, from the Farnsworth House to the Hotel De Paris. He ushered the fight against sprawl and the struggle for sustainability into the heart of the preservation movement. You can’t posit a more transformative leader. Moe will remain involved at Lincoln Cottage, an 1840s Victorian cottage where the 16th President spent a full quarter of his Presidency.
I was intrigued by the interpretation of the Lincoln Cottage. First, a separate historic building, a lovely tile-roofed Renaissance Revival building from 1905 serves as the Robert H. Smith Visitors Center. This was one of the first LEED certified Gold historic rehabs, fulfilling the sustainability mission Moe set out for the Trust three years ago. Continue Reading
I have been involved with the Pleasant Home Foundation in some fashion almost since it was set up in the early 90s by a group that included former SAIC President Tony Jones. I moved to Oak Park in the later 90s and had a regular gig talking to groups there every May, offering insights into the relationship of Pleasant Home’s architect, George Washington Maher, and his more famous contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright. Maher designed Pleasant Home in 1897 and you could argue he achieved many aspects of the Prairie School idiom a year or two before Wright. (The name comes from the streets – Pleasant and Home – whose intersection it occupies.)
The house has the broad eaves, overhanging hipped roof and decidedly horizontal massing of the Prairie School. It also has urns flanking the entrance and is centered on the hearth/fireplace, a device Wright also used.
I have blogged several times about Hull House and its approaches to interpretation of historic sites – in fact, “Hull House Again” is my most-visited blog post. I have also blogged about the Gaylord Building on several occasions, where I served as Chair of the Site Council for six years. Another role of mine this decade has been as a member of the Roger Brown Study Collection Steering Committee, involved in the preservation, interpretation and educational implementation of the property and collection at 1926 N. Halsted in Chicago. Continue Reading
Well, many months have passed but people are still looking at my blog last fall about Robie House so an update with the status is in order. First, the exciting news is that the latest phase of reconstruction is just about complete so you can visit Robie House – in Chicago’s Hyde Park – without the distractions of major construction work going on. PLUS, there are now available – in limited numbers and by reservation ONLY – a private tour that includes the long-sought, almost-never-seen third floor, where the bedrooms are. Yes, Robie House is a three-story building, despite all that dynamic steamship horizontality. Continue Reading