Letter from the President
Revisiting Museum Visitation
By Charles F. Bryan, Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer
Over the past few years of economic downturn, I've referred in this column to the hard times experienced
by many history organizations. Budget cuts, salary freezes, and delayed or canceled building projects seemed the
order of the day. Many veterans in the history field spoke of those bad times as the worst they had ever experienced.
I've become used to hearing this litany of grim news from my colleagues around the country. Now, at last, the
economy seems to be turning around after a long dry spell. We can only hope that this good news will translate
into improving financial prospects for those of us in the history business.
Even so, one troubling index seems resistant to turnaround, and that is museum visitation. For some years now,
museums have reported declining or, at best, flat attendance numbers. At first glance, we might be tempted to
attribute the drop to the economic downturn and the after effects of 9/11. But the downward trend in visitation
predated the souring economy and the terror attacks. So there is reason to doubt an improving economy alone
will correct the decline.
What might be the cause? Some people blame the apathy about history that allegedly is growing in our country.
In fact, however, I would argue that there is a great hunger to learn about history. Just look at the proliferation of
cable TV programs and web sites devoted to historical topics. Indeed, the choices for people to "consume"
history are growing by leaps and bounds. This may mean history museums face greater competition for attention,
but it doesn't mean a rising indifference to the subject. Far from it.
Here at the VHS, our visitation through the door has plateaued. On the other hand, use of our web site
has exploded. What will the future hold? We can't know. But we do know that as people grow older their
interest in history tends to increase. With the aging of the Baby Boom Generation, we might see an increase
in visitation. But will that visitation be through the front door or online? Whatever the case, the choices
consumers of history face will only increase, and we need to refine our programs to keep abreast of the
public's evolving interests. History organizations live in a marketplace as dynamic as that of the for-profit economy.
Posted November 2004
• Letter archive
• Charles F. Bryan, Jr. biography