Why Rural Museums Are Becoming Ancient History
By Bruce Coursonz
It was disheartening to learn last month in the Boston Globe of Old Sturbridge Village's recent layoffs and closure of several major facilities. The museum is a living history museum in central Massachusetts that depicts 1830s New England life on a 200-acre site with 40 period buildings. One thousand reservations for Thanksgiving dinner, a tradition since the 1950s, had to be canceled this year. A new tavern and motel, which were expected to generate much needed revenue for the Village when they opened in 2001, will be shuttered in January. Only 20 of the once nearly 70 costumed guides remain. A personally troubling fact, as I was a "tinsmith" there in 1971, a period when increasing attendance was a given.
It is a story increasingly common for rural Massachusetts museums within a day's drive of major metropolitan areas. Many have current paid attendance numbers that are nearing 50% of what they were three decades ago. My own institution, the Sandwich Glass Museum, saw attendance drop from 84,000 in the early 1980s to 42,000 in 2000. Published figures and statistics I have gathered over several decades point to similar trends in nearby maritime and historical museums, not only in Massachusetts but along the Boston-Washington corridor as well. Considering all that we hear about "the museum boom" in major cities occurring during that same period, this might seem a surprising state of affairs.
Numerous causes have been cited for this precipitous decline, including the weather and 9/11. But one factor stands out among the reasons behind this consistent, decades-long trend: the 1978 deregulation of the airline industry and a new era of cheap air travel. Before deregulation, most vacations were taken in the summer and the automobile was the affordable, preferred means of travel. After 1978, however, inexpensive travel and free "frequent flier" tickets gradually became available. As a result, passenger counts more than doubled between 1978 and 1998. The vacationing public increasingly opted to leave their cars at the airport and, at any time of the year, fly to their destinations. Since 1978, the likes of Glacier Bay, Alaska, the Galapagos, or a Caribbean cruise have become affordable and popular attractions. Changing leisure-travel patterns among the American public are not a new phenomenon: A historic parallel occurred when Coney Island's Steeplechase Park succumbed to the post-World War II "automobile vacation" in 1964.
How have most museums dealt with the financial downturn brought on by this decline in attendance? They've raised their prices. I know of one major, Sturbridge-like outdoor history museum in Massachusetts that, in 1971, charged the equivalent of $5.72 in 2004 dollars but, now, after its latest price increase, charges $21. Its many efforts to expand public programming have not kept pace with the 267% increase in admissions fees. This example is unfortunately not the exception but the rule. A museum will often raise its price slightly to help a sagging bottom line only to find that next year's decrease in attendance requires yet another increase in admissions fees -- a vicious cycle.
How many companies, realizing a serious decline in demand, merely raise their prices without substantially improving their product? Not many still in business. Unfortunately, a great number of museums are now perceived as too expensive, with potential visitors often choosing to go elsewhere.
Other institutions have tried a different tack, "improving their product" by means of major expansions. While some have been successful, all too often the results have been devastating. In many cases small operating deficits became large ones because of additional staffing, greater facilities costs and debt from insufficient capital campaigns. Increases in attendance revenues, if any, failed to meet unrealistic projections. Layoffs became necessary and some institutions ceased to exist altogether.
In 1992, the New Bedford Whaling Museum was forced to close its two-year-old Whale Discovery Center in nearby Plymouth, Mass., after attendance fell short of what was needed to break even. "We had hoped to have 75,000 visitors each year. We had 36,000 over two years," stated then-director Anthony Zane.
There are no silver bullets in the museum business, of course, and every institution faces a somewhat different set of circumstances. The Sandwich Glass Museum on Cape Cod, aware of several failed expansions in the region, chose a different approach to the problem of seriously declining attendance. In 1998 we launched our first-ever capital campaign, raising $2.3 million -- four times the institution's operating budget. We built a glassblowing arena, a high-tech multimedia theater and new retail space. The difference was that our business plan included holding general admission fees to 1970s levels, $4.50 in 2004 dollars, and reducing group admissions fees to $1. Staffing numbers and operating expenses were budgeted at pre-expansion levels and only a stabilized attendance was anticipated, not an increase. In short, more bang for the buck, not more bucks for the same old bang.
The museum is now in its third post-expansion year. The number of paying visitors increased by 26% over that period and is now holding steady at that level, while attendance at similar area institutions has fallen by 19% during the same three-year period. A sizable operating surplus will be posted for the second year in a row. While these numbers are encouraging, the museum still has regained only one-third of the attendance lost over the past three decades.
As residents of the Boston-Washington corridor continue to favor airline over automobile vacations, the possibility of a broad uptick in attendance at rural locations is highly unlikely. Until museums face up to the real market forces at play, and cease blaming the weather or 9/11 for annual declines, we shall be reading more stories of those in serious trouble or ceasing to exist. Decades of hard work have gone into building these institutions and presenting their accumulated knowledge to millions of people. It would be a tragedy to lose even one of them.