In preparation for my presentations at the upcoming Historic House Symposium at Gunston Hall and the National Council on Public History annual meeting, I’m analyzing financial information about history organizations in the United States. I’m currently researching state historical societies, working my way from the most populous state (California with 37 million residents) to the least (Wyoming with about half a million residents). So far I’m about halfway done, but I wanted to share what I’ve learned and get your reactions.
Among my preliminary discoveries is the dramatic difference among state historical societies. Some are incredibly big (the New York Historical Society has $133 million in net assets) and some states don’t seem to have a statewide historical society (anyone know what’s happening in North Carolina?). One might assume that the biggest states have the biggest historical societies, but that’s clearly not the case. The chart above shows the net assets of the historical societies in the twelve largest states in the Union by population. The historical societies in Massachusetts and Virginia have the largest assets among the dozen, even though those states are the smallest in the bunch. Are historical societies in the former English colonies more successful because they have more history? Or is that residents just believe they have more history?
Even more surprising is that financial deficits are much more common than I expected. Among the twelve most populated states in the Union, seven state historical societies experienced deficits. Is it a coincidence that the largest deficits occurred in the organizations with the largest assets? Are they taking risks to innovate or are they being careless? We’ll also want to watch what happens at the Ohio Historical Society–they not only experienced a deficit, but they had no net assets.
There’s been a lot of chatter about the precarious financial condition of historic house museums, but this initial look at historical societies may suggest the issue is much bigger. While some have suggested house museums can solve their problems through mergers or sales with easements, that’s not easily accomplished with a state historical society.
This is just a preliminary look and there’s much more analysis to be done. If you have any insights, thoughts, or questions, please share them in the comments below.