Why There? Figuring Out the Presence of America’s History Organizations

As part of a project to develop a new framework for AASLH‘s professional development/continuing education program, I plotted history organizations onto a map of the United States using a subset of IMLS’s database of museums. That’s a big category that includes history museums, historical societies, historic preservation organizations, historic house museums, and general museums that include history as a major topic and while there is some discussion about the comprehensiveness of the IMLS database, it’s the best information we have available and for my project, more than sufficient to get a sense of the big picture.

As you’ll see in the map below, history organizations are mostly located in the eastern half of the US.  Start at the southern tip of Texas and draw an imaginary line due north and the lion’s share is on the right side of the map.

History organizations in the United States. Red is the location of historical societies and historic preservation organizations; green is history museums and house museums; and blue is general museums. Data source: IMLS, 2018. Map: Engaging Places.

That’s probably something we all suspected but now can visualize it better. When I’ve shown this map to a few people, they concluded that it’s because there’s much more history in the East. But take a look at the heat map below while recalling the US history timeline, and you’ll come to a different conclusion.

Heat map of history organizations in the United States. The hotter the color (red and yellow), the greater the density of history organizations. Data source: IMLS, 2018. Map: Engaging Places.

A heat map reveals the deeper patterns within the forest of dots and shows where there are clusters of history organizations. New York City has the greatest concentration of history organizations in the US, which is part of a larger cluster that stretches from Boston to Washington, DC. Again, that might confirm hunches that this pattern is due to the “amount of history” in these regions, but if history is measured by the year a place was settled, it doesn’t hold for very long. In the early 1600s, the English are landing in Boston and Jamestown and the Spanish are settling in Santa Fe, New Mexico—they would seem to have “more history” and yet they’re not the “hottest spots” on the map. If you include the major Native American settlements, such as those at Cahokia Mounds and in Chaco Canyon, which precede Boston and Santa Fe by centuries, you have to come to a different conclusion: modern population density.  Those clusters correspond to the regions with the largest concentrations of people.

I suppose that reveals a human trait: when we develop communities, we also develop a shared story about ourselves, a history.  To collect and preserve that history, we create organizations like museums, archives, and historical societies.  Let’s get away from discussing who has more or better history, and instead recognize the value of history to every community—big or small, new or old.

The maps also suggest a strategy. For places where there is “some heat” (those red and yellow spots on the heat map), work towards collaboration and coordination with other nearby history organizations to leverage your resources.  For those places that are “cool” (those blue and green areas), greater responsibility falls upon you because you may be one of the few organizations that emphasize history.  Think bigger in terms of geography or time to achieve a sufficient density of content that’s meaningful to a larger community.  In both instances, we need to work together at state, regional, and national levels to collect, preserve, and interpret our shared history. History is something that we innately feel is important to our identity and culture—let’s continue to work on this with each other.

Special offer to statewide and regional history organizations: These findings are shaping the professional development programs at AASLH so they can better serve its members and history as a whole. If a map of points or a heat map of history organizations based on the IMLS data that I have already plotted would be useful to your statewide or regional history organization, I’d be happy to provide one as a professional courtesy. At this time, I’m unable to respond to requests from individuals or local organizations (you’re welcome to freely use the images in this blog post without permission).

6 thoughts on “Why There? Figuring Out the Presence of America’s History Organizations

  1. Janice Klein

    The Museum Association of Arizona would love a map for our state. We’ve got a broad picture of the distribution of museums in Arizona by county, but I think this might be even more useful. Since many of our historical societies/museums are in very small communities, I don’t think there’s necessarily a correlation with population centers. I’d be more concerned about how IMLS counted these organizations and whether that included a bias, particularly against smaller museums (I believe part of the process was by looking at IRS 990s, which many very small museums do not file). For those of us who have tried working with the original 2015 IMLS data we found an error rate of between 10% and 40%. A quick look at the 2018 update suggests few corrections were made.

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    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      The IMLS database is not comprehensive, however, it’s the best we have at the moment (if I created this map five years ago, the data would have been far worse). I’ll send you the detailed maps for Arizona and if you’d like to test the museum-population correlation theory, I’ll happily plot out a new map if you’re able to collect better data for your state.

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  2. Harry Klinkhamer

    Spot on that the correlation is history enterprises to population density. Although there is a small case to be made for preservation by neglect. I often ask students why history seems to happen in the middle of nowhere when it comes to locations of many historic sites.

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