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 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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 2021 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.
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.
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 will develop 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
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.
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.