As part of their Humanities Indicators project, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences just released their analysis of visits to historic sites. It shows that, “the percentage of people reporting at least one such visit in the previous year fell by more than a third from 1982 to 2012, with declines across most age groups.” At first, I saw this as a corroboration of the widely reported Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), which the National Endowment for the Arts has conducted since 1982, but when I looked more carefully at the data, I realized it was based on the SPPA. So while there’s no news here, it does provide a useful summary:
- In 2012, 24% of Americans age 18 or older had visited a historic site in the previous year. This was 13 percentage points lower than in 1982, with the bulk of the decline occurring from 2002 to 2012.
- The decline in historic site visitation from 1982 to 2012 was largest in the 25-to-44-year-old population, an age group that includes many parents of young and adolescent children. However, because no reliable national data on children’s visits to historic sites currently exist, establishing whether a corresponding decline occurred in the percentage of children who visited historic sites is not possible.
- Over the 30-year period studied here, the differences among age groups with respect to rates of historic site visitation substantially decreased. For example, in 1982, the rate of visitation among 25-to-34-year-olds (the group most likely to visit a historic site in that survey) was approximately 11 percentage points higher than that of the youngest age group (18-to-24-year-olds), and more than 17 points higher than that of people ages 65–74. By 2012, however, the visitation rates of 25-to-34-year-olds had dropped to within five percentage points of the younger cohort and fell slightly behind the rate for the older cohort. In 2012, the age group most likely to have visited a historic site was 55-to-64-year-olds, but their visitation rate was only six percentage points higher than that of 18-to-24-year-olds, the group least likely to visit.
- The data reveal generational differences with respect to Americans’ tendency to visit historic sites. With each birth cohort, Americans of all ages have been less likely to visit historic sites. For example, those born from 1938 to 1947 had a 45% likelihood of having visited a historic site in the previous 12 months when they were ages 35–44, while those who were born in the 1968–1977 period had only a 23% likelihood of having visited a historic site when they were the same age.
- As people aged they were less likely to visit a historic site. In each of the three cohorts for which the most complete data are available, the drop-off in historic site visitation over the life course is at least 25%.
The SPPA is a reliable national survey but if you use this data, be aware of a couple factors:
- The survey question is broad: “During the last 12 months, did you visit an historic park or monument, or tour buildings or neighborhoods for their historic or design value?” It is not just about taking a tour of a historic house museum.
- The survey is a national aggregate. Much like the stock market, just because total visitation has declined doesn’t mean visitation at an individual historic site has declined. What is more important (and isn’t part of their study) is why people visit or avoid historic sites, or why some historic sites have successfully moved against this trend (and they are out there).
For another take on this data, see “New Report Reveals Each Generation Less Likely to Visit Historic Sites Than the Last” on the AASLH blog.