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The original Fort settlement at Detroit in the Detroit Historical Museum (all photos by the author)

It’s been said that those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it. That’s an especially foreboding sentiment in light of a new report released this week from the American Association for State and Local History’s Public History Research Lab, which suggests that visits to history museums, historical societies, and other history institutions declined nearly 70% in 2020. This contrasted surveys in prior years, which indicated strong visitation growth for history museums — especially small, local ones.

“We hope these findings offer history organizations wider perspective on the impact of last year’s disruptions,” said John Garrison Marks, director of the Public History Research Lab, in an email to Hyperallergic. “Our research reveals that no institutions were left unaffected, from the smallest to the largest, even while history was at the forefront of public discourse more than any time in recent memory.”

There are, of course, a number of reasons for this trend. Institutions operated at less than full capacity for about nine months of 2020, generally closed to the public for approximately 23 weeks in 2020. Even when operational, most faced significant capacity or other functional restrictions for an additional 16 weeks. Small organizations (those with annual operating budgets of less than $250,000) on average stayed closed longer than their larger counterparts, a reflection of their lower overhead costs — and possibly the fact that a portion of them are simply run by volunteer history obsessives and/or model train enthusiasts and doll weirdos whose collections have taken over their lives. Or it could be that we’ve all been live-reenacting a global endemic for the last two years and feel that our contemporary plague state is a good enough history lesson on its own. (Although, compared to the Black Death, we are still doing great!)

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

Additionally, virtual programming adopted by many institutions as a stopgap measure complicates ideas of what it means to attend a museum.

“The shift to online programming raises new questions about how to measure virtual ‘visits’ in a way that allows us to make meaningful comparisons between different institutions,” said Marks. “With so many different modes of virtual engagement (events, virtual exhibits, online collections, etc.), what are the most meaningful metrics that all institutions should be tracking?” This seems especially relevant to historical institutions that have archival materials that do not present opportunities for vibrant physical display, but which hold much informational value and may be accessed virtually.

It is ironic that during a year when questions of the historic record were central to many discussions — including those of school curriculumstatuary and monuments; and looted antiquities — attendance at the institutions that preserve and educate around that history took such a big hit. Or perhaps it is perfectly understandable, as we collectively seem more determined than ever to ignore and repeat the mistakes of the near and distant past, rather than learn and grow from them. Undeterred, the AASLH plans to survey the field again in early 2022 to determine if visitation rebounded in 2021, or if we are preparing to enter a new Dark Age.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

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