Baby boom-era Americans piled into their station wagons and visited historic sites in such record numbers in 1962 that the National Geographic Society sought to capture the trend in a huge, colorful volume it called America’s Historylands. The book’s cover featured the colonial capitol in Williamsburg, Virginia, and showed men and women dressed up in tricorn hats and white bonnets, making an organic connection to the founding of the nation. Americans loved the houses, public buildings and battlefields that told the story of the nation, and the book spent 500 pages explaining the extraordinary attraction of these settings for families on their weekend sojourns.Something else that Millennials are killing!
Now, while families gather to celebrate the nation’s founding and President Donald Trump seizes the moment to bask in the historic aura of the Lincoln Memorial, many of the landmarks where that history was really rooted seem to have lost their allure.
Colonial Williamsburg, for one, reportedly draws about half the number of visitors it attracted in the 1980s, the last decade of the Cold War. Other iconic destinations also face flat or dwindling attendance; Civil War sites, once guaranteed to entrance the young, are among them. As a historical moment, Gettysburg will always be the high-water mark of the Confederacy, but the battle site happens to be at a 10-year low in numbers of visitors, and far below the levels it drew in the 1970s.
Even places that depict American ingenuity in a different way, such as by telling the story of flight, show signs of losing their claim on the imagination, with attendance at the National Air and Space Museum trending down over the last 10 years despite drawing far more foreign tourists than in previous decades.
Seriously, interest in the old-school Patriotic version of American history is way down. Some people say that means we should put more emphasis on a woke version: women's rights, Civil Rights, slave rebellions, and so on. But actually people are not flocking to those sites either.
Is it because fewer people care about the past, or because people would rather experience it on video? Both?