I’m personally allergic to historical reenactments and most forms of interactive history telling. I think all too many museums and historical sites grasp at straws, technically and aesthetically, when they try to recreate the way history is told. But I acknowledge the problem of falling attendance, reduced engagement and the side effects for the history business of living in an over-entertained, over-stimulated, over-busy society.
The comparison between the newspaper business and the history business is telling. Even the attendance figures at a place like Colonial Williamsburg are eerily familiar to the subscription numbers of major newspapers. They peaked at an annual high of 1 million in the 1980s, and have dwindled to about 700,000 recently, a downward curve remarkably similar to that of a large metropolitan daily. Who have they lost? Essentially the same people that newspapers are losing. And on what do they pin their hopes? In many cases it’s technological innovation that is just emerging but has yet to reveal its real impact (subscriptions on Kindle? iPhone aps that turn the museum into an enhanced reality zone?).
I spent a lovely day at Williamsburg earlier this month, and wrote up some the changes that are happening there, in the guise of a story about their most recent addition (the first major reconstruction in more than fifty years) to the storied Duke of Gloucester Street. Williamsburg has the deep pockets to think this through, so their innovations will be closely studied by many less well-endowed museums. I wish them luck.