Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Future of the Past

In Today's Washington Post there is an article by J.Freedom Du Lac about the plight of most historic house museums in the country. The problem is steeply declining attendance, and a trend that has been going on for decades. Just in Virginia there are over 100 historic house museums, most of which operate at significant losses.

Monticello saw 671,000 visitors at its peak forty years ago, and now sees 440,000. Stratford Hall on the Northern Neck saw 80,000 visitors during the Bicentennial and now sees 27,000 visitors. While some look for excuses like a lack of interest in history, or gas prices, that is not the reality. The movie on Lincoln is one of the top 25 grossing movies this year, and the Smithsonian Institute has seen increasing attendance.

I believe the core issue is how is information being delivered, what is the experience that these sites are selling?

Someone telling visitors about the furnishings of a room was enough 40 years ago, but not enough to grow attendance today. The new Mt. Vernon Education Center, has a 4D movie, where it snows in the theater when they are at Valley Forge, and the chairs shake when the cannons fire. Their are various hands on displays that are much more inviting than the typical museum. This makes for t he kind of interactive experience that attracts visitors. Re-enactments is another type of event that makes history come alive for the public. Smartphone apps is another area that offers a great potential to build a new experience.

The trick for today's historic sites is to offer a compelling experience that is worthy of the public's time and money. That experience needs to be much more than just an old artifact behind layers of UV protected glass. We need to make history come alive and engage the public in a compelling way that makes them want to learn more about our wonderful shared history.
Children get into the action at the Ball's Bluff Battle Reenactment

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