For all of the amazing work and thinking going on at America’s museums and heritage sites, much of it currently on display at an exciting National Council on Public History conference in Connecticut, public historians face an uncomfortable truth: According to a recent study of the public’s relationship with the world of history museums, 60% of Americans visited no museums, of any kind, in 2018, and only 7.5% reported visiting a history-related site. Yes, that 7.5% is trended younger and more active, but we have to face the hard reality that any American is 9 times more likely to never set foot inside a museum than she or he is to visit yours.
But, as I have argued, and others have denied, that does not mean that Americans’ interest in history is on the decline. Fully half — a solid 50% of all those surveyed — believe that the past has a clear and direct impact on the present. Another 30% think that the past somewhat affects today. Very few, less than 10%, either think not, don’t know, or don’t care. And the vast majority wants to know more, but, in doing so, they are arriving at some troubling conclusions. For example, two-thirds of Americans oppose the removal of Confederate monuments or the renaming of places named for slaveholders. That’s a position radically different from your average Kevin Kruse follower, who — like me — tend to believe that such monuments are not fixed in space and time, intended to stand forever as symbols of oppression and white supremacy, when cultural imperatives demand a reconsideration. But we are a vocal minority.
Why such a disconnect, when tens of thousands of Tweet likes or podcast downloads represent something of a victory within the public history community? Aren’t academic Historical Communications programs working to improve how academics talk to all those people who never go to a museum and believe Confederate monuments should stay just where they are? The answer lies in just how Americans actually consume history, and it isn’t on Twitter. It’s not even in the classroom (the survey found that only 11% of Americans credit formal education as a primary source of historical information).
Where they’re actually getting it is on demand, on YouTube, at the movies, and through the multiplying streaming services that have already come to dominate the lives of many, if not most, Americans. So it should come as no surprise that top primary sources of historical information are historical documentaries (74.2%) and period dramas (60.2%) like Outlander, Poldark, and Downton Abbey, which, we must note, are historical fiction that need good academic advisers to keep them from doing more harm than good to their viewers’ historical literacy. Reading nonfiction books was cited by 57.9% of respondents as a primary source, but that includes the best-selling tripe from the likes of Bill O’Reilly (who seems to enjoy writing about killing historical figures, just as he tortures prose and the past) and Ben Shapiro (whose risible “The Right Side of History” is right now at the top of the New York Times Hardback Nonfiction Best Sellers List). But, in a boost for the heritage tourism industry, and a market for travel contextualization that’s begging to be tapped, almost half of Americans — 47.9% — cited travel to historic sites as among their primary sources of historical information, even if they don’t seem to be going into the museums and institutions near those sites. (Here’s an exercise for you: Go to YouTube and search for your museum or site and see what comes up. That’s how travelers are making their destination decisions these days. Do you like what you see?)
So where does the future of public history lie, if, perhaps, not in onsite visitation in the traditional sense? Is it blurry? No. It’s coming into increasingly crisp focus. It might move, but it’s all online, and it’s not a podcast.
Yes, I’m sure you’ve heard that before. Those kids and their interweb thingies. But it’s not just about generational communication mechanisms. It’s about behavorial economics or, more simply put, how almost everyone who doesn’t have a vivid recollection of having to get up to change the channel on the television relates to their world, and that includes their understanding of the past and the present. These are new audiences that are almost wholly online and can — through mediums such YouTube and IG TV and Periscope — feel more connected to the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands than to the history museum on their own street.
That’s because places such as the Rijkmuseum, and, on this side of the Atlantic (or, er, Pacific), the Monterey Bay Aquarium, get the importance of cultivating and maintaining a sustainable online audience that can be a source of funding and visibility through their canny and consistent use of social media. Even quite smaller institutions, such as the Walden Woods Project, are doing it well, within their means. And it’s not because they’ve invested in new media marketing teams, because it only takes one smart phone, one person who knows what to do with it, and one person who gets it when it comes to shareable content that creates what we used to call virtual online experiences, which in our time have become actual. There’s nothing virtual about it for digital natives.
But all that engagement is beginning to focus on one particular method: Video, mostly recorded but increasingly live. It’s one of the reasons I have almost entirely shifted my public history energy to center on filmmaking (and not the 8- or 16-hour comprehensive marathon kind) with my new production company, sponsored by a mouse that I used to advise. According to a soon-to-be-released study, funded by that company and others, video consumption, at every level of communication, is now — not next decade, not next year, right now — the main means by which audiences consume content of pretty much everything.
And you can pick apart those demographic toplines all that you want, especially as Gen Z has overtaken the spending power of Millenials as America’s largest generation. The numbers remain true. This year, 80% of all Internet traffic will be driven by video content, just as mobile video consumption increases by 100% every year. 55% of Americans watch an online video every day and 92% of them will share that video with others. In fact, Americans are 1200% (!) more likely to share their e-mail, Tweet, or Insta, Vero, or, Heaven forbid, TikToc post, if it contains video rather than still photos (forget about text, unless imbedded in the image).
For public history pros who are business-minded, there are clear returns on any investment in upping your online video, um, game, as 64% of Americans are more likely to take action after watching a video than reading a post. In fact, live video, such as what Monterey Bay does daily and Walden Woods schedules every Wednesday afternoon, makes viewers spend three times longer on an engagement and increases click-throughs for viewers to learn more by 200%-300% over recorded videos.
I won’t belabor this topic any longer. Suffice to say, as I already have more than bit of experience in front of and behind the camera, I’m taking the plunge to a new way of practicing public history through film and video production. And, unlike most documentarians, I’m a historian first, as is much of my team, so we don’t need to spend two years in development learning about the American Revolution in order to figure out what stories needs to be told about it. We, as historians, know what we know, and we also, crucially, know who knows what we don’t know (um, yes, that says just what I wanted it to say).
So we’re taking a different approach, for both the filmmaking and public history worlds. We’re carrying an understanding of a past that matters to where the audiences are, to combat alternative facts and fake news on their own battleground, and, hopefully, we can also get those audiences to where you are. I’d much prefer that you come along for this ride. The revolution won’t be televised, but it will be streamed.