The original fort settlement in Detroit in the Detroit Historical Museum (all author photos)

It is said that those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it. It is a particularly disturbing feeling in light of a new report released this week from American Association for State and Local History Public History Research Laboratory, suggesting that visits to history museums, historical societies and other historical institutions declined by almost 70% in 2020. This contrasts with surveys from previous years, which indicated a strong growth in visits to history museums, especially small premises.

“We hope these findings give history organizations a broader perspective on the impact of last year’s disruptions,” John Garrison Marks, director of the Public History Research Lab, said in an email to Hyperallergic. “Our research reveals that no institution has been spared, from the smallest to the largest, even though history was at the forefront of public discourse more than ever in recent memory.”

There are of course several reasons for this trend. Establishments operated at less than full capacity for about nine months in 2020, typically closed to the public for about 23 weeks in 2020. Even when operational, most faced significant capacity or other restrictions. functional for an additional 16 weeks. Small organizations (those with annual operating budgets of less than $ 250,000) have been closed on average longer than their larger counterparts, reflecting their lower overhead costs – and perhaps the fact that some of them are simply managed by history-obsessed volunteers and / or model train enthusiasts and doll nuts whose collections have taken their lives in hand. Or it could be that we have all pieced together a live-action global endemic over the past couple of years and feel that our contemporary plague is a pretty good history lesson on its own. (Although, compared to Black death, we are still doing very well!)

An iron lung on display in a medical history museum, reminding us that COVID-19 treatments could be even worse than they are now.

In addition, the virtual programming adopted by many institutions as a stopgap complicates ideas about what it means to visit a museum.

“The shift to online programming raises new questions about how to measure virtual ‘tours’ in a way that allows us to make meaningful comparisons between different institutions,” Marks said. “With so many different modes of virtual engagement (events, virtual exhibitions, online collections, etc.), what are the most significant measures that all institutions should follow? This seems particularly relevant for historical institutions which have archival documents which do not present opportunities for dynamic physical exhibition, but which have great informative value and can be viewed virtually.

It is ironic that in a year when questions of history have been at the heart of many discussions, including those of Course of Study; statuary and monuments; and looted antiques – attendance at institutions that preserve and educate around this story has taken such a big hit. Or maybe it is perfectly understandable, as we collectively seem more determined than ever to ignore and repeat the mistakes of the near and far past, rather than learning from them and growing up. Undeterred, AASLH plans to survey the field again in early 2022 to determine if visits have rebounded in 2021, or if we are preparing to enter a dark new age.

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