Six years ago, when I talked about historic sites and house museums around the country, I borrowed the term “crisitunity”—a combination of crisis and opportunity—from an episode of The Simpsons. As a field, we identified the fact that these institutions had particular challenges that demanded attention if they were going to continue to exist. However, we also understood that there was an untapped potential in how we engaged with the public that, if realized, could allow us not just to survive, but to thrive.
Today, the American Association of State and Local History released a report on visitation to history organizations that offers encouraging data from around the country. Their study shows that from 2013-2018, all history organizations saw a 5.7% increase in visitation, with self-identified historic sites showing gains of 10.2% and historic house museums showing gains of 8.8% over the same period. While the sample size was small and the results more volatile, “preservation organizations” also saw a small increase in visitation.
At our National Trust Historic Sites, six years ago we were beginning the work of address a significant backlog deferred maintenance that we had identified at our properties. Across our portfolio of 28 properties, we were also developing more inclusive and experiential programming, as well as starting to re-imagine our operating models. The leaders of our National Trust Historic Sites have made important strides in making history and historic places more accessible, inclusive, and relevant. In a variety of ways, they have engaged with new audiences and new partners, as well as expanding their sources of revenue and support. In fact, since 2012, the National Trust has completed more than $20 million in restoration and rehabilitation work at our sites and we’ve seen visitation rise by almost 17%.
Beyond the success of our own portfolio of historic sites, there are also other examples from the work of the National Trust that support this positive data about engagement with history organizations. In our 2019 Partners in Preservation contest that ended last week, more than 1.1 million votes were cast to award more than $2 million in grants from American Express to sites associated with women’s history around the country. This is the highest vote total since we began this annual contest in 2006.
Additionally, through our African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the National Trust has partnered with funders such as the Ford Foundation, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and the JPB Foundation to bring an unprecedented level of support to organizations dedicated to preserving and interpreting African American history and culture. Just a few months ago, thanks to the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Trust awarded $1,637,500 to 22 exceptional preservation projects across the country. But the needs are far greater—the 2019 grantees were selected from a larger pool of 462 proposals totaling over $40 million in requests for support. This is a powerful reminder that there are still so many needs to be met and so much potential to be realized in history organizations as we work to tell the full and frank stories of our shared American history.
There is another cautionary note in the fact that AASLH’s study results show a decline in visitations from 2017 to 2018, which underscores that true evolution is, by its very nature, ongoing. As institutions, we have to be just as dynamic as the communities we seek to serve, always seeking out new methodologies and new partnerships whether in the physical preservation of our buildings, landscapes, and collections or in thinking expansively and creatively about the histories we tell and their connections to the present and the future.
You can dig into the AASLH report here, which slices the data by institutions and also geography. John Garrison Marks, AASLH’s senior manager of strategic initiatives, has provided further analysis on AASLH's blog. Congratulations and thanks to John Dichtl and his team at AASLH for developing and implementing this important survey.
Ultimately, the AASLH study released today provides encouraging new data to show that we are succeeding in engaging more people with our history at the places where they can experience it. The AASLH survey, including the work of the National Trust, demonstrates that a broad range of organizations across the country are actively engaged in stewarding, interpreting, and sharing our collective history to a growing audience. For me, this confirms that preserving our shared history has the power to bring people together, a pursuit seems even more urgent today than it did six years ago. So, I suppose the “crisitunity” isn’t over, it has just begun.
Katherine Malone-France is the chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.