Visits to Historic Sites are a Humanities Indicator, says AAAS

Percentage of Americans Who Visited a Historic Park or Monument* in the Previous 12 Months, by Age, 1982–2012. Humanities Indicators, 2012.

Percentage of Americans Who Visited a Historic Park or Monument in the Previous 12 Months, by Age, 1982–2012. Humanities Indicators, 2016.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

5 thoughts on “Visits to Historic Sites are a Humanities Indicator, says AAAS

  1. mountplains

    There is a companion study on arts museums which also shows a decline in visitation. So, I am not sure how to digest these studies. But what I do know is this: it was good to see you at Advocacy Day, Max. Just wished I could have visited with you more.


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      The art museums and historic sites reports by AAAS are both based on the 2012 NEA study, which in a nutshell says attendance is declining, but it’s far worse for opera, ballet, jazz, and classical music (not part of the Humanities Indicators project). The only area that showed growth (other than the over 75 crowd, which may be a limited opportunity) is photography and videos (hmm, what can museums and historic sites do to take advantage of that interest…?).

      Good to see you as well at Museums Advocacy Day on Monday and wanted to chat, but geez, there were a lot of people in the room and I couldn’t even find a seat in the afternoon.


  2. Ken Scofield

    Max, are people just switching to “virtual tours” on line as opposed to actually visiting the physical sites? We have become a society so focused on the computer screen in all areas that this could also apply to museum site visits. It would be interesting to track the number of hits on the various museum/monument internet sites as another indicator of interest. I did note that visits for the over 65 crowd shows an upswing.


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Perhaps online experiences are replacing on-site ones, and it’s what everyone wants to know (including retail stores) but the jury is still out. It may depend on the audience segment (e.g., seniors vs teenagers). I don’t recall any studies for historic sites on this topic, but Google just released, “Five Ways Consumers Connect to Stores with Mobile Shopping” that shows the connections between mobile vs physical shopping, and it may apply to museums and historic sites as well. For example, 50 percent of customers who conduct a search on their smartphone visit a store within a day, so could it be possible that online information about a museum or historic site could encourage people to visit? I guess it depends on what they find online–it’s now frequently used by shoppers to make a decision about where to make a purchase.


  3. Benjamin Wilson

    Not sure what we’re doing right at the New Hampshire Bureau of Historic sites, other than aggressively using social media to connect with stake holders and advocates. We have grown visitation over each of the last five years and in some cases were up over a 100% over FY 2014. I’m speaking about the state owned and managed historic sites and resources. One critical move we made was expanding our site missions to include all that can be experienced at a site from as little as picnicking to outstanding seasonal striper fishing at the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion and Fort Stark. Building new advocate groups by sensitively diversifying property use has by default grown visitation for what still is the core mission of teaching New Hampshire history through landscapes, architecture, collections and stories. By expanding our voice through social media, which includes in-house video, blogs and rapid responses to the publics questions, we’re able discover new user groups that we didn’t know we already had. Many of these groups tend to be younger, more politically engaged, educated and looking for healthy activities like hiking, biking and kayaking. One example I often use involves a simple trail we constructed through the maritime forest on the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion property. We built the simple 1m trail to give folks who were waiting for a tour to start something to do. After the trail was complete and blasted out on social media, we had folks coming to use the trail first as a new local resource and then consider doing the house tour. We are always learning from our guests and try to react as quickly as we can. I manage 18 sites with 25 seasonal sites guides at five house museums on less than $200k a year. New Hampshire has the only self funded system in US.


Comments are closed.