Living-History Museums Struggle to Draw Visitors

Chip Leis, 57, works in the tinsmith's shop at Old Sturbridge Village. The site recently made its first-ever cuts to costumed staff members.
Chip Leis, 57, works in the tinsmith's shop at Old Sturbridge Village. The site recently made its first-ever cuts to costumed staff members. (By David A. Fahrenthold -- The Washington Post)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 25, 2005

STURBRIDGE, Mass. -- Historical fact: In the 1830s, many rural New Englanders followed a religion so strait-laced that they did not celebrate Christmas.

Accordingly, at Old Sturbridge Village -- an outdoor museum where an 1830s town has been re-created down to the cider mill and the Gloucester Old Spots pigs -- they used to ignore the holiday as well.

Used to. Until, in the past few years, attendance started to slip.

"How many times can you tell the story, 'They didn't celebrate it'?" asked Susanna Bonta, a museum spokeswoman.

Now, in December the village gets a makeover that might make a Puritan -- or a historian -- blanch. There is a Christmas tree (not popularized in the United States until the 1840s), a visit from Santa Claus (who didn't take his current form until after 1850) and a series of nighttime tours showing the village lit by (electric) candlelight. These are times for creative thinking at the country's "living history" parks, where officials worry that their old formula of restored buildings, costumed interpreters and anvil-banging demonstrations is losing its tourist appeal.

Museums from Virginia to Michigan are trying to add an edge. How about a walk-through theatrical production? An overnight stay in a pilgrim's house? Who'd like to try on 19th-century replica underwear?

In this fast-moving age, apparently, just making the past come alive isn't enough.

"It's just a larger, competitive world," said John Caramia, a North Carolina museum official and past president of the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums.

There are dozens of living- or "outdoor" history museums around the country, offering strolls through such attractions as a cowboy camp, a prairie farm and a Shaker village. The largest of these parks is Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg, a 301-acre re-creation of the state's 18th-century capital.

There, historical re-creation is big business: The park sold 729,000 tickets last year, about the same visitor total as Washington National Cathedral, and pulled in about $188 million in revenue.

But, in the past few years, business has been getting worse. The Williamsburg park's ticket sales were down 5 percent in 2004, and 9 percent the year before that. Other parks tell similar stories. At the Jamestown Settlement, a Virginia park re-creating an even earlier era of colonial history, paid attendance fell from about 521,000 in 2002 to about 423,000 last year. A decline in visitors led Old Sturbridge to make its first cuts of costumed staff in recent memory.

"We have a lot of trouble, much more trouble than we used to, in getting them here," said Beverly K. Sheppard, president and chief executive officer of Old Sturbridge, a cluster of relocated buildings around a town common, about 55 miles west of Boston.

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