Should Local History and Historic Preservation Dominate the Museum Field?

Figure 1. Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (A82) organizations have an outsized presence in the field. Source: Internal Revenue Service and National Center for Charitable Statistics.

Of all the organizations in the United States devoted to arts, culture, and humanities, Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (NTEE A82) organizations have an outsized presence.   More than a third of all organizations “sponsor activities which celebrate, memorialize and sometimes recreate important events in history such as battles, treaties, speeches, centennials, independence days, catastrophes that had an important impact or other similar occasions.” “Historical society,” “historical association,” “heritage society,” “preservation,” and “restoration” are in the name of nearly 80 percent of institutions in this category.  They are also focused on local history—only one in twenty institutions appear to have a geographic scope larger than the county level.

While preserving and interpreting local history is their primary interest, these organizations are the smallest by revenue.  More than 90 percent operate with less than $1 million in revenue annually and have a median revenue near $64,000 (yes, the median is $64,000 annually for all A82 organizations for 2011-2017—half of these organizations operate with less than this amount).  Only Historical Organizations (A80) produce similar financials, albeit with slightly higher figures.

Figure 2. Annual revenue for most Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (A82) organizations was less than $1 million in 2017, with more than 94% producing less than $1 million in annual revenue. Source: Internal Revenue Service and National Center for Charitable Statistics.

Going deeper, nearly 60 percent of these Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (A82) organizations operate with less than $100,000 in revenue annually.  A sampling revealed that 15 percent did not have dedicated websites, many opting for Facebook as their main platform. 

Our analysis of Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (A82) organizations raises two major questions for the field. If the field is dominated by these much smaller organizations, how can they best be supported through the existing channels, such as foundations and associations?  For example, when operating budgets are small, small grants of $1,000-$10,000 can make a big difference.  Rather than a one-size-fits-all grant program, foundations should simplify the application and reduce reporting requirements if they want to serve small organizations that are typically managed by volunteers. For example, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts have moved in this direction in recent years but need to go further. 

The other question asks how well these smaller, local organizations are represented in museum associations.  The field’s sensitivity to equity and inclusion has grown, but it may be myopic. Our terribly unscientific sampling of board representation at the American Alliance of Museums, National Trust for Historic Preservation, New England Museum Association, Association of Midwest Museums, and Western Museums Association suggests that representation by A82 organizations may decline as geographic scope increases (see Figure 3).  If that is accurate, how well are the needs, interests, assets, and ideas considered as these museum associations make decisions about ethics, practices, standards, priorities, and policies for the field?  If they are largely absent, they have little influence.

Figure 3.  A hypothetical chart speculating on the relationship between the geographic scope of an association and board knowledge and experience with historical societies and historic preservation organizations.

Finally, if Historical Societies and Historic Preservation organizations have similar missions according to the definition of the A82 category, is that possible to achieve in real life?  Historical societies increasingly recognize that they cannot remain socially neutral and must be involved in advocacy to bolster support and make an impact.  Without support or relevance, historical societies are threatened with an extinction that won’t be noticed by the local community.  Historic preservation organizations are skilled at advocacy and can bring essential insights into the process.  Indeed, they have been so successful that they have established national, state, and local laws that protect and support historic sites.

On the other hand, while historic preservation organizations are good at saving places, they are often terrible at public programs.  Like the proverbial dog chasing the car, they’ve saved the house but now don’t know what to do with it.  Unless you’re an architectural historian, exhibitions and tours can seem filled with obscure names and facts.  Events are typically entertaining, not educational. Furnished rooms are beautiful but lifeless. Historical societies excel at programming and activities that engage communities, plus they are often supported by older residents—the group that actively votes and most influences elected officials.    

Having worked in both types of organizations, it seems that associations could bring together historical societies and historic preservation organizations.  Indeed, many historical societies own and operate historic sites and use them for educational purposes, but avoid advocacy.  Most historic preservation organizations don’t own historic sites, and if they do, they either use them for commercial purposes or transfer management to other nonprofits.  It will be challenging at first, but working together will increase our impact because these smaller players are primarily responsible for preserving and interpreting history across America.

Table 1. Examples of Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (A82)

New York Historical SocietyNew York, New
American Battlefield TrustHagerstown,
Atlanta Historical SocietyAtlanta,
Cuyahoga Valley Preservation and Scenic Railway AssociationPeninsula,
Deborah Cooper Historic Park FoundationJefferson City, MissouriNo Website Available
Mills County Courthouse Restoration AssociationGoldthwaite, TexasNo Website Available
Harpers Ferry Historical AssociationHarpers Ferry, West
Adirondack Mennonite Heritage Association and Historical SocietyCroghan, New
New London County Historical SocietyNew London,
Tucson Historic Preservation FoundationTucson,
Carolinas-Virginia Antique Airplane FoundationWalnut Cove, North
Boulder Historical SocietyBoulder,
Table 1. Examples of Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (A82)

2 thoughts on “Should Local History and Historic Preservation Dominate the Museum Field?

  1. Janice Klein

    Lots of data and lots to think about here. Let’s start with the title. Maybe the question should be “Should 5% of the museums dominate the agenda of national museum organizations (aka AAM)?” As your data shows the large proportion of museums (whether they call themselves historical societies or historical museums or historical sites) are small local history museums. Your graphic showing the make-up of the museum field’s leadership is interesting, but more interesting still would be an analysis of the membership of AAM by NTEE code, as well as one of the Annual Conference presenters and attendees. As you’ve heard me say before, State Museum Associations (SMAs) are the primary organizations that serve the vast majority of museums and they need more federal support than they are getting. Historical preservation groups might want to find more ways to collaborate with SMAs (as we often do here in Arizona) on advocacy, programming and, of course, community engagement


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