More Visits to Paid-Entry Institutions

By John Garrison Marks and W. Maclane Hull

This is post number four in our series exploring the National Visitation Report. Read the posts from Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday here. View the report at learn.aaslh.org/national-visitation-report.

Some of the most interesting findings in our National Visitation Report came from breaking down the data by institutions’ cost of entry, whether free or paid. We received roughly an equal number of responses from institutions with free entry (632) and paid entry (624). Both types of institutions saw an overall increase from 2013 to 2018, and both experienced a slight decline from 2017 to 2018. Deeper analysis, however, reveals more interesting results.

Among our respondents, free institutions received more visitors on average (58,899 in 2018) than institutions with paid entry (42,282). But, paid entry institutions experienced a much larger increase in visitation than their free counterparts: 10.5 percent versus 1.8 percent. At first glance, those results might be surprising, but additional research suggests perhaps they shouldn’t be. For example, audience research analysis by Colleen Dilenschneider suggests that “admission fees are generally not a primary visitation barrier” at cultural organizations, finding that people who do not visit typically cite factors other than cost.

Analyzing visitation trends based on cost of entry for institutions with different budget sizes yields further insights. Institutions with free entry tended to be clustered among the smallest budget levels, while those with paid-entry were distributed more evenly. Organizations with annual budgets of less than $250,000 made up 72 percent of free entry institutions but only 44 percent of those with paid entry. This distribution raises interesting questions about the revenue models of U.S. history organizations: why are the organizations with the smallest budgets so much more likely to provide free entry to their institution?

That question is complicated even further when we isolate the visitation trends for small institutions. When we consider our whole sample, visitation increases were more than five times larger at institutions with paid entry than at free ones. However, for small organizations the opposite is true. Paid entry institutions with an annual budget under $50,000 experienced effectively no growth, averaging just one visitor more in 2018 than they did in 2013. Paid entry institutions with budgets between $50,000–$250,000 reported a visitation increase of 8.3 percent. Small-budget, free institutions, meanwhile, reported much larger visitation growth, outperforming both small, paid-entry institutions and large, free institutions. Visitation to free entry institutions with a budget under $50,000 rose nearly 25 percent from 2013 to 2018, while those with a budget between $50,000–$250,000 saw a 16 percent increase.

Overall Under $50,000 $50,000–$250,000
Free Entry +1.8% +24.7% +16.0%
Paid Entry +10.5% +0.0% +8.3%


These conflicting data points raise several questions for further research. Why are paid entry organizations experiencing so much more visitation growth? What are small, free organizations doing that their paid-entry or larger counterparts aren’t? Why are free organizations clustered among small budget institutions? Our National Visitation Report can’t answer these questions directly. We hope, however, that by providing these data, the report can help clarify some of the issues, questions, and challenges facing the nation’s historical organizations and can serve as a strong foundation for future study.