Generating Insights for the History Community

By conducting and sharing research about the public history community and the role of history in American life, AASLH helps advance public history practice, strengthen our institutions, and empower history organizations and professionals across the country. Through our research, AASLH strives to equip history professionals, museum leaders, scholars, advocates, and others with data and insights they can use to fulfill their missions and more effectively champion the cause of history.

The Public History Research Lab functions as the central hub for the AASLH’s research activities. Through staff expertise and strategic collaboration with external researchers and advisers, we carry out a range of research projects in service of the field. We share our findings through a range of outlets, including print and digital publication, webinars, conference sessions, blog posts, and specialized research briefings for the staff and board of historical organizations. We also monitor trends and publications that can impact public history practice, periodically publishing targeted research briefs on the AASLH blog. Our active research projects are described below.

If you have questions, ideas, or feedback, or are interested in partnering with us on a project, please contact John Marks ([email protected]), Director of the AASLH Public History Research Lab.

Framing History

In 2019, AASLH received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for “Framing History with the American Public,” a three-year project to carry out a comprehensive, nationwide study of how the public understands what history is and why it’s valuable to society and to develop new, more effective communications tools for the field. Working with the renowned FrameWorks Institute, partners at the National Council on Public History and the Organization of American Historians, and a panel of advisers of public historians, museum professionals, and history scholars, the “Framing History” project has three major goals: 1) to identify the gaps between experts’ and the public’s understanding of what history is and why it’s valuable to society; 2) to develop and test new communication strategies for solving those challenges; and 3) to create and deploy tools and resources to train history professionals in all sectors of our field to communicate more effectively with the public.

In 2020, we completed the first of those goals, resulting in the report: “Communicating about History: Challenges, Opportunities, and Emerging Recommendations.” You can read our summary of the report on our blog. In 2021 we will continue testing communications strategies identified in that report, developing an empirically tested, proven effective set of recommendations for how history professionals can most effectively communicate to public audiences what history is, what historians do, and why it’s valuable to society. Beginning later this year and continuing into 2022, we will develop a toolkit, webinars, online courses, and other professional development resources to encourage the adoption of the project’s recommendations and train history professionals and volunteers to put them into practice.

As we approach the 250th anniversary in 2026, we believe this project will help historians, museum professionals, educators, and others take full advantage of that once-in-a-generation opportunity to reintroduce history to the public.

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National Visitation Report

Since 2019, AASLH has conducted annually a national survey of in-person visitation trends at United States historical organizations. The National Visitation Report provides data about attendance at historical organizations of all types and sizes, enabling us to more confidently assess Americans’ engagement with U.S. history museums, sites, and other institutions. The Report highlights year-to-year visitation trends, helping us understand more clearly if visitation is going up or down (and by how much) at institutions of different budget sizes, organizational structures, functions, and in different regions of the country.

In our first National Visitation Report, published in 2019, we found that visitation at historical organizations increased just under 8 percent from 2013 to 2017, and declined about 2 percent from 2017 to 2018. Our 2020 report found little change in visitation from 2018 to 2019. More interestingly, both reports found the strongest visitation growth at the smallest institutions.

This ongoing effort is one of the research lab’s core initiatives. We hope these findings help institutions benchmark their own visitation numbers, as well as help the field identify emerging trends with time to act accordingly.

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Census of History Organizations

How many historical organizations exist in the United States? In 2020—with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and in collaboration with Dr. Carole Rosenstein and researchers at George Mason University—AASLH set out to answer this question for the first time in nearly two decades. At present, the best sources of information about the number and locations of historical entities are the Institute for Museum and Library Services’ “Museum Data Files,” and the “National Inventory of Humanities Organization” from the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Our preliminary research revealed, however, that both lists likely undercount the number of history museums, historical societies, and other history institutions in towns and cities across the country.

By combining and reconciling institution lists from state museum associations, state historical society, regional history networks, and other sources with existing databases from IMLS and Humanities Indicators, we hope to develop a comprehensive list of the nation’s historical organizations. The final report and census (expected in summer 2021) will help advance advocacy efforts, facilitate collaborations between institutions, and provide a critical benchmark for assessing the impact of major events—like the 2020 coronavirus pandemic or the 2026 250th anniversary—on the number of institutions in the country.

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History in Our Parks

Initiated in 2019, the “History in Our Parks” initiative is led by a task force of professionals from state, county, and city parks agencies around the country. This group is working to is to identify the unique needs and challenges of parks and recreation agencies that care for historic and cultural resources while operating within a system that is not geared towards heritage preservation. In doing this, the task force seeks to gather data on the number of parks and recreation agencies (municipal, county, and others) that care for historic and cultural resources (museums, historic sites, collections, archeological sites, cemeteries, landscapes, etc.), initiate an assessment of their needs and challenges, and explore how AASLH can help through networking, training, and collaborative efforts with other organizations.

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