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Part V. The Humanities in American Life

Section C. Other Humanities Programs and Institutions for the Public

NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators, http://HumanitiesIndicators.org".
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Indicator V-12 State Humanities Council Programs
Indicator V-13 Historic Site Visits
Indicator V-14 Art Museum Attendance

Public libraries are but one of the many kinds of institutions that bring the humanities into Americans’ lives (see Section B. Public Libraries). Others include state humanities councils, which aim to make history, literature, and other forms of humanistic activity accessible to the general public. Art museums and historical sites are two other important types of institutions that enhance public understanding and appreciation of the humanities. Regrettably, data describing such institutions are not as plentiful or as reliable as those on public libraries (which are the subject of regular data collection by the federal government). This section of the Humanities Indicators is thus limited to presenting such nationally representative data as do exist—namely, those regarding the kinds of programs state humanities councils offer the public and those concerning the extent to which Americans visit historic sites and art museums.

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Indicator V-12 State Humanities Council Programs
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Through its programs and grants, the nation’s 56 state humanities councils seek to involve the general public in the humanities. The councils are funded in part by the federal government through the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). They also receive funding from private donations, foundations, corporations, and, in some cases, state governments. (For more on the character and resources of these organizations, see Indicator IV-3, State Humanities Council Revenues.)

The NEH collects information from the councils about their activities and then classifies the different types of programming under general headings. Figure V-12 clearly shows that the councils use their resources to engage the public in the humanities in a wide variety of ways, ranging from the production of local festivals to the support of television programming. Some council-supported programs have proved to be particularly popular over the years in part because they can be adapted to many settings and locations from urban centers to small rural towns. These programs include reading and discussion groups, lecture/discussion programs, and traveling exhibits. The councils’ priorities also include providing resources to teachers, supporting family literacy, and fostering an appreciation of local history. To accomplish their goals, the councils employ a variety of media. While virtually all councils generate printed matter, a substantial majority also rely on radio, TV, film, and the Internet in an effort to reach a broad swath of the American public.

Figure V-12, Full Size
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Indicator V-13 Historic Site Visits
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Updated (8/24/2012) with data for 2008.

Historic site visitation is another important form of public engagement with the humanities. In an effort to assess rates of such visitation, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) asked respondents to its Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) the following question: "Did you [in the past year] visit an historic park or monument, or tour buildings or neighborhoods for their historic or design value?" The data indicate that the percentage of people answering yes to this question declined incrementally over the 1982–2008 time period (Figure V-13a). According to SPPA, in 2002, 32% of Americans 18 and older had visited a historic site in the previous year, down almost six percentage points from the early 1980s. From 2002 to 2008 the decline continued but was more pronounced, with the visitation rate dropping to approximately 25%. Looking over the entire 26-year period, the rate of visitation decreased by a third.

Figure V-13a, Full Size
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This decline was most heavily concentrated in the 25-to-44-year-old population—an age group that includes many parents of young and adolescent children. However, because no reliable national data on children's visits to historic sites currently exist, establishing whether a corresponding decline occurred in the percentage of children who visited historic sites is not possible.

Over time, differences between age groups with respect to rates of historic site visitation have decreased. For example, in 1982, the rate of visitation among 25-to-34-year-olds, the group most likely to visit a historic site, was approximately 11 percentage points higher than that of the youngest age group, the 18-to-24-year olds, and more than 17 points higher than that of people ages 65 to 74, those least likely to have visited a historic site (with the exception of those age 75 and older, who in every year NEA has surveyed Americans about their visitation behavior have had substantially lower rates than any other age group).1 By 2008, the differentials were only four and two percentage points. In 2008, the age group most likely to have visited a historic site was the 45-to-54-year-olds, but their visitation rate was only six points higher than that of 18-to-24-year-olds, the group least likely to visit.

The relationship between age and historic site visitation can be thought of as a combination of two distinct phenomena. The first of these, known as the “cohort” effect, refers to the effect of people’s generation on their tendency to visit historic sites. The other effect is that of a person’s age on his or her visitation (the “age” effect).

Figure V-13b presents the SPPA data in a way that makes the relative influence of these phenomena more apparent. The figure reveals that a cohort effect is at work to some extent. For example, those Americans born 1938–1947 had a 45% likelihood of having visited a historic site in the previous 12 months when they were in their mid-30s to mid-40s (ages 35–44), while those who were born 1958–1967 had only a 36% likelihood of having done so when they were the same age. The figure also makes obvious that as people age they are less likely to visit a historic site, although the data suggest that the drop-off is occurring later in life for more recent birth cohorts.

Figure V-13b, Full Size
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Measuring historic site visitation in the way that SPPA does is one of two possible means of gauging the extent to which Americans make use of the nation's historical resources. Another approach is to seek visitation data not from individuals ("Did you visit a historic site last year?") but from the sites they visit ("How many people visited this site last year?"). No organization or individual researcher has yet produced a reliable estimate of total visitation for U.S. historic sites, but information on levels of visitation to National Park Service (NPS) historic sites and monuments are available for years 1975–present. The NPS reports that visitation to its historic sites rose from approximately 90.1 million in 2002 to 96.0 million in 2008.2 These data describe the number of visits to historic sites, not the number of people who visited. Because a single person can make multiple visits to historical destinations, site visitation levels will always exceed the number of individuals who visited the sites in any given year. Also, such data capture visits made by people from other nations and do not take into account the growth of the growth of the U.S. population over the six-year period. As a result of these two sets of issues, these data reveal only a hint about American's embrace of their historical resources, although they do speak to the demands made of such sites' physical infrastructure and staff.

(Other history-related items in the Humanities Indicators include Indicator I-3, Knowledge of U.S. History, and Indicator I-9, Qualifications of Humanities Teachers.)


Notes
1 In only a few cases were the differences between age groups statistically significant (at the 95% level). For an explanation of the concept of statistical significance, see http://stats.org/in_depth/faq/statistical_significance.htm.

2 Calculated using the online data tools available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/stats/. Included in the NPS visitation counts provided here are visits to what NPS terms “national historic sites,” “national historical parks,” “national battlefields,” “national battlefield parks,” “national military parks,” “national monuments,” and “national memorials.”

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Indicator V-14 Art Museum Attendance
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Updated (6/12/2012) with 2008 data.

The SPPA includes data that permit an analysis of change since the early 1980s in the rate of art museum visitation. These data indicate a continuation of the decline in such visitation that began in the early 2000s (Figure V-14). In 2008, 22.7% of the U.S. adult population reported visiting a museum or art gallery in the previous year. In comparison, the share in 1992 was 26.7%, the largest recorded since data of this kind were first collected in 1982.

Figure V-14, Full Size
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Grouping the data by age of respondent reveals that the decline in art museum–going that began among younger people at the turn of the century is now occurring among older Americans. From 1982 to 2002, the museum visitation rate of Americans age 45 and older rose steadily. The rise was particularly striking among 45–54-year-olds, whose visitation rate increased by more than 10 percentage points over the time period. By 2008, however, the rate of visitation among midlife Americans was back down near its early 1980s level.

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