By Sean Blinn, Bedminster Township (NJ) Historic Preservation Commission and AASLH Small Museums Committee
Recently, AASLH featured a series of blog posts summarizing the new National Visitation Report, showing strong growth at small history organizations, and discussing historic house museum visitation. In short, the report found that visits to history museums, historic sites, and historic house museums increased significantly since 2013. Since the report came out, several of us in AASLH’s Small Museums Affinity Community have been talking about what it means and why this trend is happening.
Small museums are often dedicated to serving a local constituency or a focused mission. While our budgets and exhibitions are smaller than other museums, that comes with a different set of benefits – including audience growth. Dr. Elizabeth Stewart, Director of the Renton History Museum in Renton, Washington, said “Although the survey doesn’t speak to the reasons behind the higher visitation numbers at small museums and historic sites, I know my own small museum has redoubled our focus on engaging with our community, being more inclusive, and regularly evaluating their needs and interests. It may be that small museums have more flexibility in meeting community needs, because serving our public(s) is imperative to our survival.”
Small museums can move quickly in response to current events and issues, and develop programs to reach out into our communities and address issues of concern. In the same vein, people may feel a greater sense of ownership and support for a community museum whose programs and exhibits reflect them and their interests. A recent survey by Conner Prairie supports this, showing high and growing levels of interest in visiting historic sites that help visitors understand the world of the present. The immediacy of a small museum visit can help provide a personal connection for visitors, which may help explain the growth we have seen.
Other people I have talked with speculate that as more people live longer and have larger disposable incomes, interest in genealogy and personal meaning-making also increases. Small history institutions are well-placed to meet these needs and provide the personal connections people seek.
What does this mean for the future of our field?
Small history organizations should feel confident in assuming leading roles in their communities; there is broad public support waiting to be tapped. Planning is already underway for America’s 250th anniversary in 2026, and small organizations should be active in this planning. We have unique stories to tell, and this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reach much wider audiences than ever before. We can use our core strengths of flexibility, immediacy, nimbleness, and relevance to serve the public in the way that only we can.
What’s your opinion? The survey leaves open the question of why these trends are occurring. Why do you think small institutions are outperforming their larger cousins? We would be delighted to hear your insight.
Learn more about our Small Museums Affinity Community on their webpage.