Damn Lies and Statistics: Why Colonial Williamsburg’s Collapse Isn’t Part of a Trend in Public History Sites

Many well-meaning journalists covering Colonial Williamsburg’s latest troubles have bought into CEO Mitchell Reiss’s narrative that “history is dead,” therefore — so his reasoning goes — CW’s problems are part of a general trend among museums (from art to living history) that he must heroically combat, rather than ones of its, or his and his board’s, own making.  In the absence of other readily available data, the journalists have tended to rely on 2014 articles and 2012 reports as proof of a field in trouble (see NPR’s Sarah McCammon’s otherwise fine piece as an example). Of those commentators without a financial stake in the current establishment, only Peter Galuzska in the Washington Post has gotten it completely wrong (I’m not sure how cutting African American programs but adding a shooting range, a skating rink, an inflatable octopus, and craft beer tastings are opening CW “up to a more diverse America”– the Wall Street Journal nailed this one). But we in the field know that things have changed in the last three years, given the efforts of many practitioners to better understand the business of public history, religiously reading “Know Your Own Bone” (check out Colleen’s terrific new resource website) and following along with Ruth Taylor (Newport Historical Society), Frank Vagnone (Old Salem), Richard Pickering (Plimoth Plantation), Gary Sandling (Monticello), and Kat Imhoff (Montpelier) as they move their institutions, and the field, forward.  And, more to the point, the data actually is there, if you know where to look.

So it’s more instructive and useful to examine the matter in terms of metrics, rather than empty — and largely unprovable — assertions about motivations behind visitation numbers and donation levels. Let’s look at how CW compares with similarly situated institutions based solely on the data, and what it really means. To me, as I prepare students to work in public history and advise major donors (and solicit them), a most useful figure is fundraising efficiency. It’s a nicely simple indicator, and terrific as a diagnostic measure: How much money does it cost an institution to convince a donor to give them $1? The implications are clear, and accurate. Institutions that donors do not know or, worse, in which they do not have much trust, take more convincing, which costs money. Or, when donors have given up on your institution, you have to find new donors, which also costs money.  Institutions that have a clear mission and an institutional culture that projects it, build donor confidence, along with a solid brand, thereby making the donation pitch much less expensive, all things considered. Based on its most recent IRS I-990, how does CW stack up against its peers and the field as a whole?

The average for museums across the country is 14 cents to raise every $1. It costs Mount Vernon 17 cents, Monticello 9 cents, Montpelier 9 cents, Strawberry Banke 8 cents, Plimoth Plantation 7 cents, and the American Civil War Center at Tredegar just 2 cents.

It costs CW 24 cents to raise every $1. Among American museums, only Mystic Seaport‘s 25 cents is higher. That also means that a quarter of every dollar donated to CW goes to raise the next dollar, not to programming or anything else.

It’s directly a measure of what we call donor confidence, a precious commodity. Once gained, it’s something to defend at almost any cost. Once lost, it’s almost impossible to get back, and, sorry Reiss, doing things like siphoning tens of millions of dollars from the non-profit endowment to mask for-profit losses isn’t going to help much with that.  Keep in mind, the massive financial losses in the hotels, golf courses, and other for-profit properties have little to nothing to do with the work on the Foundation side, even if the Foundation is bearing the brunt of covering those losses (they even fired the director of conservation and effectively shuttered the research library — pretty tough to run a history site without those folks, although a current staffer tweeted that those cuts were merely “unfortunate.” One suspects he enjoys continuing to collect a paycheck.).  For example, the Foundation had to rent the Kimball Theater, essentially from itself, for all programs (and without a discount from the normal rate).  That’s one way to use non-profit money to underwrite a for-profit venture.  Again, look at the data — the Foundation, strictly speaking, has always been able to cover its own costs.  The eye-popping deficits have been caused by the for-profit ventures.  But mix them together and, suddenly, it’s an issue for the entire museum field?  Um, no.  The problem is less that CW’s historical audience stopped going, it’s that the ones who were going stopped sleeping in its expensive hotels.

That leads us to look at CW’s “Working Capital” number. That’s how long, based on existing assets and current trends, a museum can last. CW’s number is now 6.6 years (less than the eight that’s been reported).  Several years ago it was twice that.

How does CW stack up against the sector in other categories? Take a look for yourself by digging through Charity Navigator.

The problem is not general. It is not the public history or museum field. It is just CW — and its leaders.