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If You Build It, Will They Come?

By Michael J. Varhola
8/31/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

While Americans are more interested than ever in history in general and Civil War history in particular—they are increasingly less inclined to actually visit historic sites and museums. That is the conclusion  being drawn from visitation figures at sites throughout the country and the personal experiences and observations of the people running them. “There are two long-term trends that are not in sync with each other,” explains Waite Rawls, executive director of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. “One is for museums in general, which shows a decline in visitation over the last 10 years. There are multiple reasons for that. The principal one is that there are so many new and effective alternative forms of entertainment, [like] the Internet. The other trend, though, is interest in the Civil War, which continues to go up. If you look at the membership of the Civil War Preservation Trust, it’s up. If you look at books published, it’s up. If you look at films produced, it’s up. So general interest in the Civil War is up.”

In short, if people can find information on a historic site online, on television or in a book, they are a lot less likely to venture out of the house and visit the site in person. According to National Park Service visitation reports for the 10- year period from 1995 to 2004, for example, visitations to two sites near Rawls’ museum—Richmond National Battlefield Park and Petersburg National Battlefield—suffered decreases of 0.6 percent and 21.3 percent, respectively. Pea Ridge National Memorial Park in Arkansas suffered an even greater reduction in visits during that period, a staggering decrease of 42.3 percent. And numerous other studies and data confirm a similar disturbing trend at sites and museums around the country.

Not all Civil War sites have experienced a slump in the number of visitors; some of the big names actually saw an increase from 1995-2004. These include Antietam National Battlefield, up 10.2 percent; Vicksburg National Military Park, up 6.9 percent; and Gettysburg National Military Park, up 5 percent. All such figures, however, need to be considered in comparison to a U.S. population increase of more than 34 million people during the 10- year period in question, from about 263 million in July 1995 to almost 294 million in July 2004 (and more than 301 million at the writing of this article). Visitation changes to historic sites need to be analyzed in the light of overall population growth of nearly 12 percent.

“Every museum that I’m aware of [has] suffered from decreased visitations, and ours is no exception,” says Anna Gibson Holloway, chief curator of the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va. “It’s because these days museums are now in competition with other entertainment sources. Yes, we’re in competition with places like Busch Gardens and Six Flags, places like that. But we’re also in competition with PlayStation, Nintendo and things of that nature. So all museums—and history museums in particular—are seeing a decline in visitation.”

Understanding the factors that are contributing to a waning interest in museums and historical sites can help their curators and directors respond in ways that are relevant to the visitors they want to attract. “That is why we do look at what the trends are and ask ‘Hey, what are the kids into these days?’” Holloway says. “We don’t try to replicate those things, but rather to engage audiences with the kind of lingua franca of their generation.”

Engaging people in ways that are relevant or most effective for them was the major impetus behind design of the interactive exhibits and multimedia battle theater at the Mariners’ Museum’s new, cuttingedge Monitor Center, which opened in March 2007. “Some people learn through doing, some through hearing, and some still like to read. So we challenged our exhibit design team to really engage all of those different types of intelligence. We’ve got video games, we’ve got audio that runs throughout the galleries, we’ve got simple hands-on things,” Holloway says. “And the whole idea of making it relevant to your visitor by placing them in the moment, that helps. We want visitors to be able to really get in the middle of it and feel what it was like and try and get an understanding for the importance of learning history. Although hopefully no one will ever realize what we did, because we don’t want them to think they’re ‘being educated.’ We don’t want this to be a bunch of facts and dates, and boring things.”

Mariner’s Museum leaders expect, however, that the institution’s recently launched Monitor Center, which will attempt to attract visitors with its 21st-century style of presentation, will have a significant impact on visitation to the site. According to Holloway, museum leaders are expecting attendance to nearly triple, from about 70,000 to around 200,000 annually.

Advanced technology and interactive exhibits aside, the fact that the new Monitor Center is oriented toward the Civil War “really does help,” Holloway says. “Civil War tourism is huge. And we think that for the naval story of the Civil War in Virginia that we’re going to be the main place and that [we will be able to] team up with the other museums that focus on the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 and really create an incredibly rich story that reaches all the way up to Richmond.”

 

Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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