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Do We Really Care About History? (Featuring JMP Graphing)

Editor’s Note: This monthly blog from Scott Wise, JMP Principal Engineer, seeks to find interesting uses of statistical discovery to solve deep questions dealing with business/economics, sports, history and psychology.  This month’s entry asks the question “Do We Really Care About history?”

The NYC punk rock group the Ramones famously penned the lyrics “I don’t care about history, that’s not where I want to be!” in their 1980 song “Rock ’n Roll High School.”  This begs a good question for our modern times…Do we really care as much about history as we did in the past?  One way to test this out is by looking the trend of our visits to history museums!


However, a quick search on the topic of the health of museum attendance often provides conflicting results!  Articles, such as the

2008 article by Cary Carson titled “The End of History Museums: What’s the Plan B” ( ) points to declining attendance trends since the 70s due to changes in how we now get information (over the internet, etc.) and warns that if we don’t make museums more exciting (with interactive exhibits, etc.) they will go the way of the dinosaurs and end up extinct!  However, there were an equal number of articles that cited quite the opposite, claiming that attendance at museums is in line with the ups and downs of the economy and in some cases are actually out performing other competing entertainment sources.  Reports by the American Alliance of Museums seem to cite the most positive trends and simply state on their on-line fact sheet that “Museums are popular!” ( ).


So what is the best way to track museum popularity given they come in all sizes and flavors (from big national/state history museums in large cities to small historical sites in far flung places)?  After giving this some thought, we decided to focus on visitor trends at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. for the following reasons.  First it is made up of a large grouping of different types of history museums (from Natural History, to American history, to Air and Space, etc.) that covers a lot of possible visitor interests.  Second is that the Smithsonian consistently ranks among the top museums in the world and is located in an accessible tourist destination.  Third is that as a public museum (60% funded through public funds and 40% through membership/private funds) it is free to the public, making only the travel costs to the museum the main expense for visitors.  Lastly the Smithsonian readily keeps records on attendance going back to the the early 70’s ( ).  So let’s see what this data can tell us about our love of history!


First thing to note is that since the Smithsonian doesn’t charge admission, they have to count total visitors observed in each of their various museums.  The Smithsonian also states that the average museum goer visits at least three of their different museum facilities within a day.  Looking at the above graph, we can see that while there is a lot of variability experienced with total visits from year to year, there is definitely not a decline in visits from the 70s.  If we fit a smoothed line (spline) through the data, we can see an increasing rate of attendance in the 70s, but then some cyclical up and down trends of between 21 to 32 million visitors from the 80s through today.   Further more some of the variability can be explained by times of economic distress that affected personal travel and leisure spend, such as the effects of the 9/11 terrorist strikes in NYC and Washington D.C., and various economic recessionary time periods.  To take a little of this variability out, we just looked at the mean visits by decade as seen in the chart below.  Here we can see that barring an unexpected economic recession or crisis event, we can expect the 2010s to perhaps be the best decade in terms Smithsonian museum visits!


Lastly we can also look deeper into which museums are the most popular among Smithsonian visitors since 2001 in the graph below.  Like most museums trying to stay current with the times and technology, the Smithsonian is constantly adding museums, attractions and closing others for renovations.  When popular attractions are closed for renovations, like the Museum of American History (NMAH) did during the mid 2000s, there is some resulting decline in total visit amounts.  However, we can see more total visit consistency from year to year in the two most popular museums, the Air & Space Museum (NASM) and the Museum of National History (NMNH), which have remained open during the last two decades and make up half of all visits to all institutions at the Smithsonian.



So if we are looking at the Smithsonian museum visits as a proxy of public interest then we can comfortably say that history matters more than ever!  And the good news is that you yourself can help keep these valuable learning institutions relevant by just making it a point to visit at least one local, state or national history museum of interest in the next twelve months!  Then perhaps we can finally graduate from “Rock n’ Roll High School” and better apply our learnings from history as we move forward into the future!

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