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….

12 thoughts on “Can an app (or two) fix the history business?

  1. Enjoyed the post, John!

    I think the short answer to the question posed in the title is… no. I think apps are interesting tools, but I believe there are other technologies, or incentives to use technologies (not yet tried, I might add) that might appeal to some who aren’t otherwise drawn to different sites. Is it the wave of the future? Is the answer alone in the use of different technologies? Not necessarily. I think technologies (can) supplement personal contact with guides, rangers, period-clothed interpreters, etc. I still think personal engagement, if delivered well (very much the key), can be most effective, and is probably the best answer for interpretation. How strong one technological supplement is against another… remains to be seen, I suppose.

    Of course, the problem in keeping track of numbers and gearing programming toward (the hope of) increased visitation can be a frustrating endeavor. I remember chasing numbers in my museum days, at the Frontier Culture Museum. There are always those questions… what’s working and what isn’t? AND why did this strategy work one day and not the other? (and other questions as well, of course).

    It can be frustrating, but it’s an interesting game of strategy, especially from folks who want to see if there are things that can make a difference. Then, there’s a problem with that too. Specifically… how long will the “company” give the numbers strategist before they find (or not) satisfaction. 😉

    Lots of great potential for discussion in all of this.

    • Robert: I wrote this post on Christmase Eve and let it sit, but your post prompted me to polish it up–so thank you for that. My point is that I don’t necessarily think that the question I ask about apps is even the right question–that the challenge is greater than matching media with an audience. We certainly need to do that, but I wonder if there is something vastly bigger going on the history business (which is why and how your post about the Getetysburg conference prompted me). Maybe not. Maybe I am engaging my nose in dramatics. I just have a sense that we don’t really grasp why people are not engaging history in the numbers they did 30 years ago.

      • O.K., I see more clearly your point, especially regarding whether or not these former “comfort” places have now become “uncomfortable zones”. I agree. There are a lot of questions that can be asked, and answers may remain more theoretical than proven fact. I also saw this in the museum, with the challenges of interpreting the African-American experience with buildings from time periods which represented things that led to the expansions of slavery, obviously leaving some visitors with uncomfortable feelings. Even after their addition of a West African village (after my time, though in the planning stages during my time there), I think it still leads (literally, considering the footpath after that point) to challenges. For that matter, I also recall challenges we faced in the Interpretation Committee of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation.

        So, has our quest to become more realistic about our history led us to a point that ultimately compromises our ability to appeal as much as in the past. Round about I go, back to the question you pose. Still, there is that other question that you ask, of Monticello. It is incredible to see how they seem to do so well, and challenges us with the question of “comfort”.

  2. If our encounters with the past aren’t helping us to engage with the problems of the present, we’re likely on the wrong track. I can imagine some of the distaste for the Civil War does have to do with the toxic climate of current politics. Some may be due to CW fatigue, or bad experiences with history in school, as well. But there is an opportunity here to provide visitors a way to get involved that goes beyond simple interactivity and gets into shared authority and the establishment of lasting communities.

    I agree that historic site interpretation has become more complicated as the social dynamics of the nation have shifted, and I think that’s a good thing. Your statement that “historic sites are far less comfortable places than they used to be” assumes quite a bit about how comfortable historic sites used to be, or for whom they were once comfortable. I don’t know how comfortable I think the Robert E. Lee birthplace plantation site should be, and I’ve not visited, but I’d like to think that Stratford Hall’s discussion next month on “the impact and importance of the Rosenwald School at Kremlin and the African-American community of Westmoreland County, Virginia” ( will be a more comfortable setting for African American visitors than any that had been organized by founding board member Jessie Ball DuPont, who did not think “the white race [should] be forced to have negro children in the schools with our children.” (written in 1946, taken from Richard G. Hewlett’s biography of JBD, p. 175

    Historic sites concerned about visitor numbers and constrained by tight budgets have to make hard choices about what kinds of projects to pursue in order to build/rebuild an audience and membership. The impressive & powerful digital tools at our disposal cannot do the work of envisioning or designing such projects for us, but they can and do amplify our voices and extend our potential communities. In order to thrive, I think we have to cultivate a vision for what those communities might come together to accomplish, and then employ the tools that will help us to undertake that work together. In so doing, we might be able to address some of the underlying frustrations many people feel about their encounters with history.

  3. Although I often hear about declining attendance at historic sites and history museums, it’s rarely put into a larger context. The surveys of public participation in the arts conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts show that attendance at historic sites has declined from 2002 to 2008, but so has attendance at art/craft fairs, opera, ballet, and jazz concerts. Secondly, there’s the assumption that if attendance is down at some historic sites, it’s down everywhere. Based on my ten-year experience at the National Trust working with 29 historic sites across the country, about a third were declining, a third were flat, and a third were growing. The sample was too small to come to any conclusions, except it did not seem to be related to location or budget.

    I suspect something else affects attendance, but we keep focusing on “velvet ropes,” “guided tours,” or “lack of technology” based on only anecdotal evidence. A little research can make a big difference. For example, Randi Korn and Associates conducted random interviews with visitors at James Madison’s Montpelier that showed that the visitors were equally split among those who wanted a guided tour and those who wanted a self-guided audiotour. Most said they didn’t want to interact with computer kiosks or digital technology–they were visiting an historic site to get away from those devices and wanted to experience real authentic objects and places. Visitor research made a significant impact on the decisions and strategy for Montpelier, yet very few sites are willing to evaluate their programs and talk with their visitors on a routine and comprehensive manner. Our preservation and interpretation work is based on rigorous historical research. We just need to bring that same attention to our programs and publicity through visitor research.

    For a more detailed analysis of attendance and finances at historic sites, see my article in the spring 2008 issue of Forum (

    • Max. Thanks for the comment and the insights. I agree entirely that this is much bigger than a question of technology. I don’t think the industry is in anything like a fatal dive. I think we’re in a generational swing…and that these things will swing back again down the road. At our park visitation in the 1950s was a fifth what it was in 1995. Perhaps history will show that we are experience a mere correction in a generalized upswing spanning decades.

  4. A few notes:

    I live and work in the NY area with various immigrant communities. Sites like Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum are very popular with these groups. Even though the actual sites are associated with European immigrants, they are used to interpret the broader immigrant experience.

    Much of Civil War history, to outsiders, seems to be ancestor worship. Events around the 150th in coverage by the media invariably included a reenactor being asked why he was there and always answering that he was inspired by some ancestor. Message: if you are Latino or Asian, this is not for you.

    When race is discussed, which it usually is not, it is viewed in an outmoded binary of black and white. Again, Latinos and Asians are outside the discussion even though they make up a fifth of the population.

    Ambiguity about slavery is also a turnoff. People ask me if German sites give such nuanced views of the holocaust.

      • Always appreciate your work. I used your book on 2nd Bull Run as a basis for an article on Schurz at the battle for an immigrant web site.

        I have spoken to more than a dozen immigrants after they saw the film Lincoln. In fact, a long-time political figure in NYC’s China Town called me today about it. I’ve spoken to immigrants from Nicaragua, Mexico, El Salvador, Venezuela, Kore and China about it and they found it intensely interesting and involving because it had a frank discussion of race. Many of them come here thinking America is color blind and then they encounter racism. Lincoln is revelatory because it exposes the deep passions race evokes.

        I know some historians dislike the film, but I have yet to speak to an immigrant who was not moved by it. (They also tell me it gave them an insight into the messy glories of democracy.)

        Immigrants have told me that they realize now that if it was not for Lincoln and the Civil War, people like them would not have been able to immigrate here.

        A bunch of my Latino friends told me they saw the Irish Brigade ceremony at Fred. on TV. They liked the transnational nature of it and the fact that the home country had not forgotten its sons in the diaspora.

        The Irish Brigade and the XI corps are often subjects of ethnic pride (ancestor worship again), but I find that when they are looked at as immigrants qua immigrants there is a commonality that modern immigrants from Asia and Latin America can relate to. Latinos are surprised to learn that the Army of the Potomac was officially bilingual. Muslim immigrants relate to the banning of Jewish Chaplains during the first year of the war. Issues of identity, race, loyalty, etc were as prominent in 1863 as in 2013.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s