Not Dead Yet: Massachusetts History Museums Visitation Was Up 9.2% In 2016?

The Boston Business Journal has some surprising news for heritage pros about the life that is showing up in heritage tourism in the Bay State. But, as I always advise, these numbers are to be read carefully.  Nevertheless, there is a lot of good, solid information here that bears reflection.
International Tourism is UP?  As the New York Times reported last month, it appears that international tourism in America is down in 2017.  There are many obvious reasons for this and, without getting into politics, let’s just say that uncertainty regarding travel is near the top of the causality list.  Places such as Newport have felt that hit (The bridge work, though, has not helped).  The Biz Journal, though, relying on numbers provided by tourism agencies, have followed the money and looked at where it really counts — spending — and found, at least for 2016, that international tourism in Massachusetts was up 3.8%.
Like so much information in the heritage business space, apples are compared with oranges All. The. Time.  The number of foreign travelers this year does not equal money spent on tourism activities last year, so the Biz Journal‘s lede that Massachusetts is “bucking the national trend” might be true, but these numbers don’t necessarily tell that story.  The important thing isn’t the comparative value (Boston is not trying to compete with Orlando) but facts behind the increase suggest reconsideration of an orthodox heritage tourism belief: closing for the winter.
Seasonal hours are one thing, particularly for small museums that find it hard enough to be open consistently during high-traffic summer months.  And I understand the budgetary considerations involved.  But, given shifting visitation patterns that find more tourists traveling during the late autumn and winter, shuttering one’s institution entirely, like a summer cottage after the U.S. Open finals, is quite another.  They’re just not the same kind of guests that visit during the summer (More locals than distance travelers; more couples and retirees than families, except during holiday breaks), so accordingly adapt programming — and that doesn’t mean paying an entertainment company to fashion an off-mission Halloween or Christmas event that will cost as much revenue as it generates (Historic Hudson Valley’s famous “Pumpkin Blaze” is a cautionary tale in this area).  In addition, many of those foreign tourist dollars happen to be Canadian (You know, that other country founded by colonial Americans?) tourists, who are increasingly interested in our common heritage — and New England in December can be balmy compared to Ontario.  So brush up on your loyalist interpretation, dust off the in-door programming (community discussions, lectures, immersive activities, behind-the-scenes and special-themed tours), and remember the bottom line: the only way to guarantee that you won’t sell a ticket or secure a donation is for someone to show up at your door and find it locked.
Massachusetts Museum Visitation is UP?  The other new Biz Journal report (Which is behind a paywall. Sorry.) is related to foreign tourism spending and perhaps more interesting: The release of the list of the “largest” museums in Massachusetts and their 2016 visitation numbers.  Before we dive into them, it’s critical to note that this list is highly selective — important places such as Historic DeerfieldPlimoth Plantation, Orchard House, and the House of the Seven Gables, large sites with strong numbers, and the Trustees of Reservations, a composite institution with weak numbers, are not on it.  The list, and others like it, depend on institutions that self-report, which means that those museums that did not send their numbers to the editors did not make it onto the list.  And most of those that did are in Boston, so it’s a highly metropolitan list.  Moreover, some of the institutions, such as Historic New England, like the Trustees, represent a wide collection of sites, rather than a single location or set of them.  So we need to read these figures with a critical eye.
That being said, the data on the list is instructive.  11 of the 25 institutions can be carved out as either solely or primarily heritage sites — the others are art museums (the MFA, deCordova), science museums, a zoo, an aquarium, or are more diffusively focused cultural institutions (PEM, Heritage Museums and Gardens).  As a whole — and oddly — the increase in visitation for these 25 museums was precisely that of the 2016 foreign tourism spending in Massachusetts: 3.8%.  But looking at just the heritage sites, the year-over-year increase was a striking 9.2% (2,880,831 over 2,666,536).  Figure the absent institutions into the list and that number would only get stronger.  In fact, only two heritage sites on the list suffered losses, with the largest decline hitting Old Sturbridge Village.  As doomsayers in other parts of the country decry heritage tourism as a dying endeavor, sites such as the Old North Church, the Old State House, the Paul Revere House, the USS Constitution, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and the Salem Witch House all experienced increases in visitation in 2016.  One could argue that the sites benefit from being in the Boston halo.  In fact, the biggest gainers — the Constitution, the Revere House, the Old North Church, and the Old State House — sit right on the heritage bonanza that is the Freedom Trail, but New Bedford and Salem are at least a day trip from Boston and Dorchester is hardly around the corner from the Common.  Cost might also appear to be an issue, as the gainer sites average an admission price of $10 (including two sites that are Pay What You Will), while the loser sites’ average ticket price is almost twice as much, $19.
The heritage sites on the list (ranked by 2016 attendance) are:
1. Old North Church (@OldNorth1723) — high gainer
2. USS Constitution Museum (@USSConstitution) — high gainer
3. Salem Witch Museum (@SalemWitchMuse) — gainer
4. Paul Revere House and Museum (@PaulRevereHouse) — high gainer
5. Old Sturbridge Village (@OldSturbridge) — high loser
6. Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (@Hoophall) — slight gainer
7. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (@JFKLibrary) — gainer
8. Historic New England (@HistoricNE) — slight gainer
9. The Hall at Patriot Place (@TheHall) — loser
10. Old State House (@BostonianSoc) — high gainer
11. New Bedford Whaling Museum (@WhalingMuseum) — gainer
Leaving cost and location aside, there are other lessons to be drawn from this data, especially for other sites along the Freedom Trail, and because I’ve visited nine of the 11 heritage sites on the list within the last year, each time with an eye towards solid public history practice principles.  The gainer sites have a great deal in common, while the loser sites (“loser” is just a convenient term based on the numbers, not a judgment call) also share some issues.  On the external side, the gainers were all especially visitor-friendly, by which I mean that their admissions are at a manageable price point, the sites are easy to find and well-marked, they have clear, smartphone-optimized websites and social media with the information a potential guest needs, and, for the most part, their staffs look to helpfully engage visitors.  On the internal side, they were, with one notable exception, actively engaged in creating mission-appropriate experiences for guests, relative to their budget — in other words, they know what pays for the party and they creatively stick to it. For example, the Old North Church’s charming guides will engage you in a conversation at whatever level you want about the building and its Revolutionary history, with add-on tours that can take you deeper (and higher) into the building (it’s a real bonus that the terrific Printing Office of Edes & Gill is literally around the corner).  If it’s immersion that you’re looking for, then the Old State House is for you, with engaging and provocative programming that will put you in the middle of the events that shaped Revolutionary Boston.  If you want some of the most knowledgeable interpreters in the business, then run to the USS Constitution.  And the New Bedford Whaling Museum does a graceful, intelligent job of telling the story of New England’s whaling past, and connecting it with our conservation present, in ways that are both interactive and surprising.
While some of the gainer sites could do even more, what none of them do is make guests confused about why they exist in the first place.  They have not made change for the sake of change.  To the extent they have altered their approach to public history, it’s to blend more public with more history to shape programming that furthers the mission, and their leadership seems to have a clear vision of how to accomplish their goals.
It’s tough to say the same things about the two loser sites.  The issues at Old Sturbridge have been covered elsewhere.  I’d call much of the programming off-mission, but that would require a discernible mission.  Either way, the interpretive staff is some of the best in the business, so they deserve better.  On a more interesting note, The Hall at Patriot Place is actually a nifty place with issues that are easy to diagnose and, therefore, fix.  Unless you’re a Patriots’ fan and have actually been to Gillette Stadium, then I doubt you’d know that it even existed.  Consequently, much of its visitation depends on the fan base.  But, as I have said before in support of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, which has its own problems, sports history is cultural history, so it counts, and the Patriots’ Hall is not an exception to that rule.  The Hall covers the basics of the team’s history, even the history of football in New England, in its exhibits — and has an arresting introductory film that might have guests leaving as fans, even if they didn’t enter as one (C’mon, the film uses THOREAU for its through lines).  It also has, as one might expect, some terrific interactive experiences.  There are some layout problems that confuse guests and the place is often closed to the public for other purposes, such as team events, so the hours are not reliable.  But, like I said, those are all issues that are easily fixed.
In Other News.  In the last few weeks, other sites have either reported gains or made considerable leaps forward.  The Newport Historical Society, at its annual “Culinary Adventure” (this year with the Victorian-era story of Ida Lewis and Ulysses Grant), reported a 2017 summer visitation year-over-year increase from 5,000 to 30,000.  The Golden Ball Tavern — with its new “Tory Ties and Patriot Spies” focus — celebrated the single most effective fundraising event in its history this year and a visitation increase of 40% over last year.  In good news for anyone interested in material culture, Charity Navigator just upgraded Historic Deerfield’s rating from three stars to four (out of four).  And Mystic Seaport might be doing the impossible — turning the Titanic from the iceberg.   Its latest I-990 shows that, besides perhaps the most attractive new building in the New England museum world, its leadership has delivered a $4 million turnaround from 2014, when it had a deficit of $2 million.  The programming along the waterfront remains strong and, again, it has a staff of engaging interpreters who know what they’re about (although things get ishy away from the waterfront).  Mystic also does the hard, and expensive, work of restoring historic ships like the Mayflower II.  Keep your eyes on Mystic.
This is all to say that heritage tourism, done by investing in more and better history, seems to be alive and well in New England.  If you’re interested in the business of public history, watch this space and, more to the point, watch this place.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m a member and/or an adviser to several sites in this piece (but none on the list) — Plimoth, the Newport Historical Society, Orchard House, the Tennis Hall of Fame, and the Golden Ball Tavern. And I remain a fan of the Baltimore Colts.

 

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