Humanities Indicators
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Historic Site Visits
(Updated August 2019)

In addition to using libraries and visiting art museums, historic site visitation is another common form of public engagement with the humanities. According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), the percentage of people making at least one such visit fell steadily from 1982 to 2012, before rising somewhat in 2017. Visits to historic sites managed by the National Park Service (NPS) were substantially higher in 2018 than 1980, despite a decline in recent years.

Findings and Trends

  • In 2017, 28% of American adults reported visiting a historic site in the previous year. This represented an increase of 4.4 percentage points from 2012 (the last time SPPA was administered), but a decrease of 8.9 percentage points from 1982 (Indicator V-13a). The bulk of the decline in visitation occurred from 2002 to 2008.
  • The recent increases in visitation rates were statistically significant for the 35–44- and 45–54-year-old age groups.[1] (Although changes in visitation were observed in other groups, they were not statistically significant.) The larger change was found among 35-to-44-year-olds, whose visitation rate increased 8.7 percentage points. Despite the increase from 2012 to 2017 for these groups, there was a net decline in historic site visitation since 1982 (the first year for which data are available) for Americans of virtually all ages. Only among the oldest Americans (age 75 or older) was the rate of visitation higher in 2017 than 35 years earlier.
  • From 1982 to 2017, the differences among age groups with respect to rates of historic site visitation decreased. For example, in 1982, the rate of visitation among 25-to-34-year-olds (the group most likely to visit a historic site in that survey) was approximately 11 percentage points higher than that of the youngest age group (18-to-24-year-olds), and more than 17 points higher than that of people ages 65–74. By 2017, however, the visitation rate of 25-to-34-year-olds had dropped to within five percentage points of the younger cohort and was virtually identical of that for the older group.
  • While visitation rates are converging among the age cohorts, the differences by level of educational attainment are still pronounced (Indicator V-13b). In 2017, as in earlier years, the visitation rate among college graduates was more than twice as high as the rate among those who finished their studies with a high school diploma (43% as compared to 17%). Among those who did not finish high school, visitation rates were below 10% throughout the 2008–2017 time period. Conversely, among Americans with a graduate or professional degree, visitation rates were in the vicinity of 50% during these years.
  • Data from the National Park Service (NPS) indicate the types of historic sites visited most and also the demands made of these sites’ physical infrastructure and staff. Visits to NPS historic sites rose from approximately 59.5 million in 1980 to almost 112 million in 2018 (Indicator V-13c). Throughout this time period, visits to historic sites constituted approximately a third of total NPS recreational visitation (not pictured).[2]
  • Since hitting a recent low in visits in 1995, total visits to historic sites of all types increased 58% to a high of 120.3 million in 2016, before falling 7%, to 111.9 million visits in 2018.
  • Much of the recent growth in visits to historic sites occurred among parks classified as national memorials and was driven by a particularly high level of visitation at sites that did not exist in 1995, such as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (3.3 million visitors in 2018), the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial (3.6 million visitors), and the World War II Memorial (4.7 million visitors). As a result, visits to national memorials increased more than 300% from 1995 to 2016, even as the number of sites increased just 26% (from 23 to 29). In comparison, visits to national monuments increased only 3%, even as the number of sites in the category increased by 9% (from 64 to 70). From 2016 to 2018, the number of visits fell in every category, with the largest decline occurring at the memorial sites (down 10%), and the smallest drop at national monuments (3%).[3]
V-13a: Percentage of U.S. Adults Who Toured a Park, Monument, Building, or Neighborhood for Historic or Design Value in the Previous 12 Months, by Age, 1982–2017
Source: National Endowment for the Arts, Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).
Related Indicators
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V-13b: Percentage of U.S. Adults Who Toured a Park, Monument, Building, or Neighborhood for Historic or Design Value in the Previous 12 Months, by Education Level, 2008–2017
Source: National Endowment for the Arts, Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).
Related Indicators
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V-13c: Number of Recreational Visits to National Park Service Historic Sites, by Park Type, 1980–2018
Source: U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, “Annual Visitation Summary Report (1979–Last Calendar Year),” under “National Reports” at https://irma.nps.gov/Stats/. Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).
Related Indicators
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Endnotes

[1] p < .05
[2] NPS visitation numbers include visits made by citizens of other countries, and NPS sites represent but a fraction of the total number of historic sites (including privately owned sites and those maintained by municipal, regional, and state government entities).
[3] Some national historic sites were closed from December 22–31, 2018, as a result of the partial government shutdown, contributing somewhat to the decline in visitation.