Articles

The United States Has More than 35,000 Museums

by Jillian Steinhauer on June 24, 2014

(image via imls.gov)

(image via imls.gov)

You might’ve suspected that there are a lot of museums in the United States, but would you have guessed that there are over 35,000? That’s roughly one for every citizen of the country of Liechtenstein. It’s also more than double the number of museums that, back in the 1990s, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) expected to exist in this country by the year 2014.

The institute released its latest information last month at the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums. The government agency, which, in its own words, “is the primary source of federal funding for the nation’s museums and libraries,” used IRS filings, its own administrative records, and information from third party commercial vendors to tally the total of active museums in this country: 35,144.

As for what defines a museum — well, it’s quite liberal. According to the press release, the term includes:

arboretums, botanical gardens, nature centers; historical societies, historic preservation organizations, and history museums; science and technology centers; planetariums; children’s museums; art museums; general museums; natural history and natural science museums; and zoos, aquariums, and wildlife conservation centers.

Given such a broad scope, it becomes a little less surprising that there are so many.

As you can see in the chart above, historical societies, historic preservation organizations, and historic houses and sites take up the largest share of the total at 48%; art museums, by contrast, constitute a whopping 4.5% (although still beating out many other categories.) When it comes to state breakdowns, California has the most museums, with nearly 3,000. New York ranks in second place, with nearly 2,500. Third? Texas, with over 2,000 museums! Pull out that number the next time someone tries to feed you the stereotype of the uncultured Texan.

(image via imls.gov)

(image via imls.gov)

The IMLS also maps the number of museums per capita, giving us the number of institutions per 100,000 people. From that very different vantage, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wyoming are leading the way.

Although the institute released this data last month, it came to our attention last week when journalist Christopher Ingraham played around with it on the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog. Ingraham took the IMLS data one step further and mapped it not just by state but by county. In terms of sheer numbers, the dominating counties are the usual suspects: Los Angeles (580), New York (aka Manhattan) (414), Cook County, Illinois (home of Chicago, 361), District of Columbia (226), Philadelphia (200). The only potential surprise is Middlesex County, Massachusetts, which at 213 museums outranks neighboring Suffolk, home of Boston (121). But Middlesex’s status as one of the most populous counties in New England and one of the wealthiest in the country helps explain that.

The counties without any museums are mostly concentrated in the middle of the country — a big swath of museum desert cuts south from the Dakotas down to Nevada, Colorado, and into Texas — and in the southeast, with bare patches in Mississippi, Kentucky, and Georgia. It’s quite fun to switch to the per capita view and see how sparsely populated counties with only a handful of museums can suddenly look like overrepresented bastions of culture: in Terrell County, Texas (the setting of No Country for Old Men), there is a single museum, the Sanderson Arts and Education Alliance (purveyor of Toe Tappin’ Tuesdays). Yet that one institution would amount to 110.7 museums per 100,000 residents (the county’s 2013 estimated population was 903 people).

Ingraham smartly points out that there are more museums in the country than McDonald’s restaurants (14,000) and Starbucks (11,000) locations combined. I would add that there are more US museums than locations of Subway, which, with 26,622 restaurants, ranks as the most common fast-food chain in the country. That leaves me to deduce that Americans still value culture over crap — a thought I find extremely comforting.

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