About the Public History Research Lab
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 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 varied 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.
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.
John Garrison Marks, Director
John Marks is Director of AASLH’s Public History Research Lab, providing strategic direction for AASLH’s research on the U.S. public history community. He oversees the planning and execution of all Research Lab projects, leads collaborations with external researchers, and carries out analysis, reporting, and grant writing for the Lab. Email John.
W. Maclane Hull, Research Fellow
W. Maclane Hull holds an M.A. in Public History from the University of South Carolina, where he is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of History. Since 2018, he has conducted the analysis and contributed to the writing of AASLH’s annual National Visitation Report, as well as other research and writing on historic site visitation. His scholarly research focuses on the cultural history of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, with a focus on the history of music. Email Maclane.
National Visitation Report
View 2023 National Visitation Report here: Infographic Summary | Full 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.
- In 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we found that visitation declined nearly 70 percent at institutions of all types, all sizes, and in all regions.
- The 2021 report revealed that visitation increased 75 percent, but that overall visitation remains below pre-pandemic levels.
- Our most recent report reveals that visits to history organizations increased by 37 percent from 2021 to 2022, a continuation of the recovery trend that began in 2021. Although this overall number represents substantial growth and is a positive sign for the field, most history institutions still received fewer visitors last year than they did before the beginning of the pandemic.
We plan to conduct the next survey in 2025.
In 2019, AASLH received a grant from the Mellon Foundation for “Reframing 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 “Reframing History” project has three major goals:
- To identify the gaps between experts’ and the public’s understanding of what history is and why it’s valuable to society
- To develop and test new communication strategies for solving those challenges
- 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 tested communications strategies identified in that report, developed an empirically tested, proven 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. We have released a Report, Toolkit, and Podcast the summarizes this research and provides recommendations. We are developing 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.
Census of History Organizations
The 2022 National Census of History Organizations is a first-of-its-kind effort to research the size and scope of the history community in the United States. Funded through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the “History Census” represents the first national effort to produce a high-quality, up-to-date, comprehensive list of the country’s thousands of history museums, historical societies, and related organizations. This initiative identified 21,588 history organizations in the United States, a number we are confident represents a floor rather than a ceiling. Through our analysis of this data, we have been able to identify some of the fundamental characteristics of our field, assess major strengths and weaknesses, and identify areas for improved practice and further research.
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 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.
In May 2022, the task force published “History in Our Parks: Results from a National Survey of Practitioners.” This report is the result of a survey effort undertaken in Winter 2020 to understand how historic sites are operated by public parks agencies and the challenges faced by practitioners tasked with history work in public parks. Read the report here.
In an effort to make research reports, white papers, and new studies more accessible to history practitioners, the Public History Research Lab publishes “Research Briefs.” These short summaries of new (and sometimes old) research from across and beyond our field help distill lengthy reports into just what you need to know: what they did, what they found, and why it matters to you.
In collaboration with museum professional Adam Rozan, the Public History Research Lab is helping to track, in real-time, announcements of U.S. museum closures. While other research and data collection efforts, like our Census project, can help provide longer-term insights on museum closures, this crowd-sourced project helps identify closure announcements as they happen. We hope this effort can help us see emerging—and concerning—trends sooner and enable us to respond more proactively.