Will history museums survive the pandemic?

A new report finds visitorship is down 70 percent.

Amid a surging COVID-19 virus and a tumultuous U.S. Presidential election, History Club held a conversation last fall on the future of museums. At the time, I shared statistics from an American Alliance of Museums (AAM) report that warned how American museums were on the brink of calamity:

·       33% of museums were not confident they would survive without financial relief;

·       16% of museums felt they were at risk of permanent closure;

·       87% of museums had 12 months or less of financial operating reserves; and,

·       44% of museums had furloughed or laid off some portion of their staff.

Now, in 2021, the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) has issued a new report specifically looking at how history museums and historic sites have fared during the pandemic. The findings are grim. History organizations experienced a nearly 70 percent decline in visitors in 2020 as compared to 2019. For every 10 visits to a history institution in 2019, approximately 3 visits occurred in 2020.

The closures of museums and educational sites in order to safeguard public health were obviously the chief causes. History institutions were closed, on average, for half of the year and partially open for one-third of the year. Visits to museums and historic sites had actually been holding level in the years prior to the pandemic, with modest rises in visitors in the mid-2010s and slight declines in visitors in the late 2010s. As recently as 2019, the AASLH remained optimistic about attendance at America’s museums, historical societies and historic sites—especially at small institutions where visitation numbers rose over the course of a decade.

But the pandemic has changed everything, history organizations included. The optimism of a pre-pandemic world has given way to an uncertain post-pandemic future. The decline in visitation has affected all types of organizations in all corners of the country. In New England, the drop in visitation reached 80 percent. For institutions with annual budgets below $50,000 it fell 67 percent. One-third of museums made staffing changes such as layoffs and furloughs—numbers that would have been far higher had it not been for the $75 million in emergency funding distributed to cultural institutions under the CARES Act. Early in the pandemic, the National Endowment for the Humanities estimated that museums and historic sites were collectively reporting losses of $1 billion a month due to closures and canceled events.

As someone who began his career working in history museums, the employment statistics struck a particular chord with me. In my first year curating exhibits at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, I earned $25,000 per year—in New York City! Salaries for junior- and mid-level employees have not fared much better since, and job instability has gotten worse. Part-time and temporary work are common in museums, libraries, archives and historic sites, with public historians hopping from one hourly-gig to another with no health insurance or retirement benefits. Public historians with full-time jobs can expect to earn between $38,000 to $48,000 annually regardless of where they live. Even despite the CARES Act, in 2020, Newport, Rhode Island, laid off 69 percent of its staff at its 11 historic homes and mansions; the Minnesota Historical Society laid off 176 employees and furloughed 139 workers; the National September 11 Memorial & Museum laid off 148 workers and furloughed 51 employees; the Museum of Jewish Heritage cut more than 40 percent of its staff; the Science History Institute laid off 14 employees; and the Brooklyn Museum laid off 26 people. These are just a few examples.

The issue behind all of this, of course, is funding for history, a subject we’ve talked about extensively in History Club and is a through-line in my forthcoming book History, Disrupted: How Social Media and the World Wide Web Have Changed the Past. Visitors actually account for a small percentage of a museum’s total revenue. Estimates vary depending on the size and type of the institution, but it’s not uncommon for admissions to account for between 5 and 10 percent of a museum’s budget. The remaining 90 percent gets cobbled together through government support (federal, state and local); fundraising (grants, donations, planned giving); memberships; special events; space rentals; and merchandising (gift shops, online stores). These revenues are essential because museums are complex enterprises with a variety of expenses: buildings and facilities to upkeep; artifacts to safeguard; 24-hour temperature and humidity controls to maintain; exhibits to design, fabricate and install; salaries and benefits to provide; marketing and educational materials to produce; and security.

Since the Great Recession, government support for museums has declined across the board in the U.S., particularly at the state and local levels. In Oklahoma, for example, the Oklahoma Historical Society has endured nine straight years of funding cuts. Philanthropy has also declined during the same period; from 2000 to 2018, the number of American households making charitable contributions dropped to its lowest levels since studies began tracking. With the Covid-19 pandemic further constraining government and family budgets, one does not expect these trends to reverse anytime soon. The pandemic has also accelerated the embrace of remote and digital life. At the close of 2021, 40 percent of Americans were working from home, the rate of Americans in homeschools had doubled, and marketers and event planners agreed that virtual events were here to stay.

Where does this leave history museums, then? With government and philanthropic funding precarious; an under-paid workforce facing attrition; high infrastructure expenses; and a fast-moving evolution towards online and virtual experiences, history museums are staring face-to-face with a series of radical transformations. As one event planner stated in a survey, “It feels like my industry became obsolete overnight.” Such a sentiment could be applied to museums and historic sites. Who are the future visitors to history museums? Who will fund on-site history activities? Who will ensure historic sites have the resources to preserve millions of artifacts important to local communities? Who will ensure public historians can earn a livable salary?

These are among the reasons why I launched my cryptocurrency, $JASON coin. I believe crypto and blockchain can be part of the solution, and my coin will be used to support public history and history communication. More on that in future newsletters. In the meantime, organizations such as AASLH, AAM and others are lobbying for increased government funding, and museums are actively working to navigate the seismic changes by making objects available digitally, hosting online events, and adapting new approaches to education. But lobbying, integrating new technologies and digitizing objects all require funding, skills training, and changing cultures within decades-old institutions, all of which takes time.

You can do your part by visiting and supporting a local history museum this holiday season, and early and often in 2022. Our friends at “Made By Us” (who partnered with us in History Club this summer) recently teamed up with AirBnB to create a list of museums you can visit when you book your next trip. So, get out there. Travel safely (with masks). Find one of the nation’s 25,000 history museums or historic sites and show them some love. You can tell your friends you did your part to save history.

“History, Disrupted” is a #1 new release on Amazon!

Thank you for the overwhelming support of my forthcoming book, History, Disrupted: How Social Media and the World Wide Web Have Changed the Past, now available for pre-order.

Because of you, last week History, Disrupted was a #1 hot new release on Amazon.com:

  • #1 new release in History

  • #1 new release in Media Studies

  • #1 new release in Sociology

  • #1 new release in Library and Information Sciences


Let’s keep the momentum going. Pre-order your copy today! Worldwide release is scheduled for December 7, 2021—just in time for the holidays.

It makes a great holiday gift for the history lover in your life!

Pre-order now!

Upcoming event: The Future of Storytelling

Next week marks the return of the Being Human Festival, the United Kingdom’s only national festival of the humanities. Hundreds of events will occur across the UK digitally and in-person, and I’m delighted to be participating in an online event on the future of storytelling in a digital world:

What: The Future of Storytelling

When: 6:00 p.m. GMT (use this converter to find the time in your area)

Where: Online (register here, it’s free)

About: Several authors—including a novelist, a digital technologist, a literature scholar and a public historian (yours truly!)—discuss what the future of reading, storytelling and text will look like in a world increasingly dominated by visual media.

It should be a great conversation. Mark your calendars and join us!

Supporting local bookstores

Several History Club members wrote me saying they’d prefer to order my book from their local bookstore. I said, “That’s great idea!”

Simply share the title (History, Disrupted) and the ISBN (978-3030851163) with your favorite shop, and they should be able to order it for you. The price and date-of-delivery will vary depending on the store and your location.

Is there a local bookstore where you’d like to see History, Disrupted on the shelf? Please let me know! My publisher can call the store and ask them to stock a few copies.

I actually canvassed people on Facebook recently asking for stores that should stock my book. The result was an amazing crowd-sourced list of local bookstores. So, I’m sharing that list below, as it turned into a wonderful resource:

1.     Shipwrecked, Coxsackie NY

2.     Joseph-Beth, Cincinnati, OH

3.     Watchung Booksellers, Montclair, NJ

4.     Browseabout Books, Rehoboth Beach, DE

5.     Word bookstore, Brooklyn, NY and Jersey City, NJ

6.     Old Town Books, Alexandria, VA

7.     Politics & Prose, Washington, DC

8.     Bronx River Books, Scarsdale, NY 

9.     Loyalty Bookstores, Washington, DC

10.  Country Bookseller, Wolfeboro, NH

11.  White Whale Bookstore, Pittsburgh, PA

12.  Beyond Bedtime Books, Pittsburgh, PA

13.  Riverstone Books, Pittsburgh, PA

14.  Capitol Hill Books, Washington, DC

15.  Octavia Book, New Orleans, LA

16.  The Book & Cover, Chattanooga, TN

17.  RJ Julia, Madison, CT

18.  Stories, Los Angeles, CA 

19.  Book Soup, Los Angeles, CA

20.  Book People, Austin, TX

21.  Lost Weekend, Munich, Germany

22.  Tattered Cover, Denver, CO

23.  Boulder Bookstore, Boulder, CO

24.  Book Passage, San Francisco, CA

25.  Keplers, Menlo Park, CA

26.  Antigone Books, Tucson, AZ

27.  Beacon Hill Books, Boston, MA

28.  Left Bank Books, St. Louis, MO

29.  Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn NY

30.  House of Books, Kent, CT

31.  Indy Reads Books, Indianapolis, IN

32.  Loyalty Books, Washington, DC

33.  Malvern, Austin, TX 

34.  Resistencia, Austin, TX

35.  Elliot Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA

36.  Uncle Bobbie’s, Philadelphia, PA

37.  Atticus, New Haven, CT

38.  The Dolphin Bookshop, Port Washington, NY

39.  Powell's, Portland, OR 

40.  Harvard Square Book Store, Cambridge, MA

41.  Porter Square Books, Somerville, MA

42.  Midtown scholar, Harrisburg PA 

43.  Gibson’s Bookstore, Concord, NH

44.  Kramer’s, Washington, DC

45.  The Ivy Bookshop, Baltimore, MD

46.  Atomic Books, Baltimore, MD

47.  Community Bookstore / Terrace Books, Brooklyn, NY

48.  Powerhouse, Brooklyn, NY 

49.  McNally Jackson, New York, NY

50.  Mercer St Books & Records, New York, NY

Have a learned and scholarly week.

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