Americans’ Declining Interest In History Is Hitting Museums Like Colonial Williamsburg Hard

Americans’ Declining Interest In History Is Hitting Museums Like Colonial Williamsburg Hard

Americans know little about their own country’s past—and they’re not expressing interest learning more about history in places like Colonial Williamsburg.
Jennifer Tiedemann and Karen Marsico
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One of the country’s most well-known tributes to the Revolutionary era is on the brink of financial ruin. Mitchell Reiss, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s president and CEO, released an open letter at the end of June revealing that Colonial Williamsburg, which markets itself as “the world’s largest living history museum,” is in dire financial straits.

Reiss wrote that in 2016, Colonial Williamsburg lost an average of $148,000 every day. The debt burden of the Foundation stood at a staggering $317 million at the end of last year. A big part of this burden, Reiss noted, resulted from heavy borrowing to construct a new visitor center and make other hospitality-related improvements around the time of Jamestown’s 400th anniversary in 2007.

But the bump in attendees surrounding the Jamestown anniversary didn’t last. After the late 1980s saw several years in which the number of ticketed visitors topped 1 million, ticket sales in 2016 were about half that. The gravity of this situation has now led Colonial Williamsburg to outsource many of its functions (including operations of its 19 retail stores and three golf courses) and to eliminate dozens of jobs. These weren’t easy decisions, according to Reiss, but they were necessary to save Colonial Williamsburg.

Why Aren’t People Showing Up?

Now that the foundation is taking steps to get its financial house in order, the next big question is why visitors aren’t showing up. Peter Galuszka wrote in the Washington Post that diversity would be key to Colonial Williamsburg’s long-term survival: “It has to try to tone down its monied, white-toast milieu and open itself up to a more diverse America.”

But Colonial Williamsburg has made efforts in recent decades to expand interpretation of its buildings and sites to incorporate more diverse experiences and perspectives, such as the addition of Great Hopes Plantation and increased portrayal of both free blacks and slaves in costumed interpretation and educational programming—and visitors are still not showing up.

Attendance issues are not just a Colonial Williamsburg challenge. History museums across the country are seeing similar problems. In 2012, only 24 percent of Americans older than 18 visited a historic site in 2012—13 percent lower than in 1982. Attendance drops are particularly pronounced among younger Americans. Only 20.5 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 visited a historic site in 2012—down about 8 percentage points from just 10 years earlier.

History education at institutions of higher learning is in trouble, too: Undergraduate enrollment in history courses in the 2014-2015 school year fell 7.6 percent from 2012-13. Not surprisingly, the percentage of history majors dropped by 12 percent between 2012 and 2014.

Colonial Williamsburg’s financial state is not entirely the fault of changing tastes, but it’s hard to deny they have exacerbated the problem. Ameliorating the debt issue requires getting people to visit, but the data paint a pretty clear picture: People just don’t seem to care about history.

Don’t Know Much About History

Americans’ knowledge of civics and history is pitiful, and a large amount of survey data proves it. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni released a report in 2016 showing fewer than half of Americans knew what the Bill of Rights is.

The latest National Association for Educational Progress assessments of U.S. eighth graders’ civics and American history knowledge found that more than one-quarter of eighth graders’ knowledge of these subjects could be considered “below basic,” while only about a fifth could boast knowledge that could be considered “proficient.” In 2014, an Annenberg Public Policy Center survey found that about a third of Americans cannot name even one of the three branches of government.

Americans’ civic knowledge is also getting worse as time goes on. The ACTA survey found, for example, that while about 98 percent of college graduates over the age of 65 knew that the president cannot establish taxes, only around 74 percent of college graduates between the ages of 25 and 34 answered correctly.

It’s clear that Americans are growing incurious, and schools are doing them no favors either. Beginning in elementary school, children have been experiencing a deterioration in history and social studies instruction over the past decade. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, only 21 states required a state-designed social studies test in the 2012-13 school year. In 2001, 34 states required regular social studies assessments. Research has also found that federal reading and math testing mandates have resulted in K-12 teachers spending more time on these subjects and less on social studies and science.

As students approach college, the problem is only compounded. Only 18 percent of four-year liberal arts colleges require students to take a course in U.S. government or history. When schools are putting so little emphasis on understanding history, it’s not surprising that Americans know little about their own country’s past—and that they’re not expressing interest in learning more about history in a place like Colonial Williamsburg.

Refusing to Learn from History

Colonial Williamsburg has made strides in promoting history education in the United States. For instance, its Teacher Institute, which began nearly three decades ago, works to develop active learning programs to make history more exciting for elementary and high school students. Although the program has grown from 44 participants in 1990 to more than 8,900 representing all 50 states, this can’t compete with the overwhelming decline of history education in many school districts throughout the country.

In their attempt to prepare students for careers in math, science, and technology, educators have failed to offer well-rounded curricula to help instill in kids an interest in this nation’s past and encourage them to become responsible citizens as they approach adulthood. Instead, these young people are exposed to a modern educational approach that denigrates American history rather than supports what our founding fathers began and countless Americans have fought to preserve for over two centuries.

Colonial Williamsburg’s long-time slogan has been “that the future may learn from the past.” While Colonial Williamsburg is making important moves to ensure that there is indeed a future for the museum, it’s not entirely clear whether most Americans will care.

Jennifer Tiedemann is a writer and Karen Marsico is a teacher, both living in the New York City area. They are frequent Colonial Williamsburg visitors.

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