There’s an interesting article at AxisPhilly on the challenges facing the historic attractions in and around Independence Mall. Big museums in the City of Brotherly Love are dealing with shrinking funds and visitation numbers that are below their goals, even as yet another public history institution—the planned Museum of the American Revolution—is preparing to set up shop in the same neighborhood.
Even with some buildings closed due to budget cuts, Independence National Historical Park is doing a brisk business, with 2 million visitors to the Liberty Bell last year and capacity crowds of 686,788 at Independence Hall. (If the number for Independence Hall seems low, bear in mind that NPS restricts the number of people allowed into the building and tours fill up early.) The National Constitution Center, by contrast, brought in fewer than 400,000, even though it’s right across from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell building. You’d assume that most museums would be delighted with annual visitation of 400,000, but the folks at the NCC were apparently counting on more. The nearby Jewish History Museum saw 100,000 visitors and the African American Museum just 65,000.
What accounts for the fact that INHP is doing a more brisk business than the other museums? Some of the answers are obvious. As the article’s author notes, the cost of admission probably has a lot to do with it. Getting in to see the Liberty Bell or the room where the Continental Congress met won’t cost you a dime, but you’ll have to fork over some cash to visit the National Constitution Center and other museums.
Name recognition has got to be another factor, perhaps the most significant one. You couldn’t ask for a historic building with more superstar appeal than Independence Hall. The Jewish History Museum and the African American Museum presumably cater to a more specialized crowd. But the National Constitution Center isn’t as narrowly focused in its subject matter, and it seems to market itself extremely well.
Why aren’t more of the people who visit INHP making the short stroll over to the NCC? I think the AxisPhilly author is onto something important when she notes that the NCC “doesn’t have a core collection of objects that people will pay to come and see.”
Ultimately, what I think most heritage tourists want more than anything else is authenticity. They want to stand in the original spot, see the real thing, have a face-to-face encounter with the past. Take a tour of some historic house, and you’re bound to hear somebody in the group ask how much of the structure and furnishings are original. Likewise, when I was a museum intern, the first question people asked when they stood at the counter trying to decide whether or not to hand over their money was, “What is there to see?” They weren’t referring to the exhibits, but the collection; they’d come to a Lincoln museum to see Lincoln artifacts. It’s like the apocryphal story about Willie Sutton. When a reporter asked him why he robbed banks, he supposedly answered, “because that’s where the money is.” People who are interested in history go to history museums because that’s where the historic stuff is.
This is an age of high-dollar mega-museums with ever more elaborate exhibits, but public historians always need to keep in mind that the objects themselves are what separate museums from other media of education and entertainment. We definitely don’t need to return to the days when an exhibit consisted of nothing but text panels and cases filled with labeled items, but we also don’t need to lose sight of the fact that while exhibits will eventually become dated, the objects aren’t going to lose their appeal.