Many house museums in history-rich states such as Virginia are grappling with dwindling attendance numbers, and though this trend can be traced back to the mid-seventies, more recent “[e]conomic forces are partly to blame” reports Freedom du Lac. House museums, normally reliant on admission and shop revenues, donations, or government funding to operate, are cutting salaries and hours, and/or hosting corporate and other special events to stay afloat, writes Freedom du Lac. Some fear many of these estates, especially lesser known ones, may have to “close their doors for good”, “which is a shame,” says Sarah Scarbrough, director of Virginia’s Executive Mansion, explaining that these “cultural assets help people understand the heritage of their communities and the country, providing context, stories and rich detail about people, places and periods.”
“Blame historical illiteracy or apathy at your own peril,” warns Freedom du lac, “attendance at many of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums has been up again, and a film about Abraham Lincoln is among the year’s top-25-grossing movies.” Preservationists and historians understand that not all historic homes can be “rockstars” like Thomas Jefferson's Monticello or George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate, which welcome millions of visitors a year and have seen growth in attendance. To stay afloat, less well-known estates like Stratford Hall, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s birthplace, and Montpellier, Jame Madison’s expansive estate, are turning to technology and developing smartphones apps to better engage the shifting tastes of visitors.
“The world is changing,” says Doug Smith, executive director of Montpelier’s Center for the Constitution. “If you want to play in a modern, relevant space, then you have to think differently and present differently. We want to tell the best story we can to as many people as we can.”