Can an app (or two) fix the history business?

From John Hennessy:

IphoneThis post is prompted by an interesting discussion over at Robert Moore’s Cenantua’s Blog and a  Christmas Eve Washington Post article about the declining interest in and increasingly dire condition of house museums. The Post article notes that visitation at most sites–excepting mega-places like Mount Vernon and Monticello–has dropped dramatically in the last decade or two. The article pays particular attention to Stratford Hall, Lee’s birthplace. Its thoughtful and resourceful executive director, Paul Reber, has watched visitation there drop from 80,000 per year in 1976 to 51,000 in 1991 to 27,00o last year.  Some sites, like Carter’s Grove and Lee’s Boyhood Home in Alexandria, have closed altogether, morphing back into private homes. A painful trend.

We have certainly noticed this at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP. While use of the sites has been relatively flat, people walking in the door of our visitor centers has declined steadily the last two decades.  In 1994, visitation at Fredericksburg VC was 117,000.  Last year it was around 73,000, and that represents an increase over the few years before that.

It’s a common thing to attribute declining visitation at historic sites to their inability to keep pace with emerging media and the demands of a public that has broken free of traditional forms of interpretation.  The Post reporter constructs such an argument, using Paul Reber’s words as the crux:

“These places are designed to tell a story for a demographic that doesn’t exist like it did decades ago,” [Reber] said. “We still deliver our stories to visitors with a guided tour, walking through the house with them. We hit them over the head with it, because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

“But people have the Internet in front of them now and can find anything they want and create their own narrative and explore the things that interest them. We have to adapt.”

Nothing that Paul or the reporter suggest here is untrue (though I would argue that the human voice well wielded is still by far the most powerful interpretive medium out there, bar none). There is no arguing that adapting how we deliver interpretation and understanding to modern audiences is critical. I’ve spent a good deal of my career trying to do just that, and there are vast mountains yet to climb on that account. Click here for some discussion of digital media and interpretation.

But it seems to me that something vastly greater than a simple mismatch of media and audience is going on here. We like to think that while society has changed, historic sites have not. That’s simply untrue, and in fact it may well be that the changing nature of historic sites and their place within American culture have more to do with declining public interest than does historic sites’ rigid resistance to change.  [Please note I use the term “may well be” in launching this argument; I am not entirely certain I believe all that I am about to write myself, but I do think what follows is worth considering and discussing].

Not long ago, historic sites were a refuge–places without real controversy, bastions of nostalgia, remembrance, and even idolatry. They were places of stability and constancy amidst a world changing, someplace we could go to reconnect with our collective (often incorrect) vision of what America once was and the people who built it. Then, most historic sites were a product of America’s insistence on a single, shared understanding of American history. [We explored this phenomena in this post back in 2011.]

Now, as power and influence in our society has become more diverse, so has our view of history. As we demand more from our historic sites, they have become vastly more complicated. They are now intellectual battlegrounds. Historic sites are far less comfortable places than they used to be. While that engages and excites many of us, should we also not be surprised that it has put some people off? Today, to many eyes, the Civil War is seen as the domain of a bunch of crazies, “still fighting the war,” waving flags, asserting righteousness, and denying much along the way. I don’t know how many times I have had people tell me that they want nothing to do with the war; it’s such a bubbling cauldron in American culture.   Is it possible that the intellectual mayhem that surrounds our sites renders them less appealing to many visitors?

Of course the great example that belies this assertion is Monticello, which has seen visitation rise in the face of–and perhaps because of–the fierce controversy over Jefferson and his lineage.  But is this the exception rather than the rule?

All questions honestly asked….