TIME Magazine’s Olivia Waxman recently published an article discussing the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the nation’s small history museums, including comments from AASLH President and CEO John Dichtl. In the post below, Dichtl offers additional thoughts about the challenges history organizations are confronting and what’s at stake if we lose them.
Across the country, monuments are coming down. Protests of police brutality and systemic racism have rapidly transformed the nation’s commemorative landscape and led to a public reckoning with the past. As the country approaches its 250th anniversary, recent events have made clear that historical organizations like museums and historic sites must play a central role in helping the nation confront its history and do the difficult work of addressing racial injustice.
Despite Americans’ urgent need to forthrightly engage with the past, however, many history institutions are on the brink of collapse. Struggling to reopen after months of closure, historical organizations find themselves confronting mounting financial challenges and an increasingly uncertain future.
If they do not receive help soon, the ability of our communities and our country to preserve, interpret, and share its history will be forever diminished.
Coronavirus closures and the accompanying financial collapse have placed history institutions under dire financial strain. Most of the country’s roughly 25,000 history organizations are small, with more than half operating with annual budgets of less than $250,000 a year—and about a quarter on less than $50,000 per year—many with an all-volunteer staff. Most organizations are private nonprofits that receive no government funds. Even many public agencies—such as the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, with its seven museums and twenty-seven historic sites, thirty-nine state parks, state library, and state archives—are not fully funded by government appropriation and have to generate for themselves a substantial portion of their operating revenue. Stay at home orders and other restrictions around the country have forced historical societies, museums, and others to miss out on ticket sales, memberships, donations, rentals, sponsorships, and other traditional sources of revenue, causing a budgetary catastrophe at many institutions.
As a result, thousands of employees have been laid off or furloughed over the last four months. Just last month, the Minnesota Historical Society—with headquarters near the epicenter of the current wave of unrest—was forced to lay off nearly a third of its staff. As many as 90 percent of museums worldwide closed during the height of the pandemic and only a few are now beginning the process of reopening. The International Council of Museums has predicted 1 in 8 museums currently closed may never reopen. Earlier this spring, the American Alliance of Museums predicted it could be as many as 1 in 3.