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Curiosity About History is Growing Across Generations, a New Survey Finds

Category: Surveys & Reports
Three children standing outside touching fur pelts
In a national survey on the relevance of history and role of museums in Americans' lives, Conner Prairie found encouraging signs of interest from respondents. Photo credit: Conner Prairie

Conner Prairie, an AAM-accredited and Smithsonian Affiliate living history museum in Fishers, Indiana, is a unique historic place that inspires curiosity and fosters learning by providing engaging and individualized experiences for everyone. Our aspirational goal is to change the way the world views and uses museums.

Most people still think of museums singularly, with their role being defined by the disciplines of art, history, or science; or by types like children’s, zoological, nature, and botanical. Why? I believe it’s because the profession has done little research nor exerted much effort to break the mold. There is a small movement of museums like Conner Prairie that believe we need to change this perception of museums and our role as a community asset. The problem is there is so little research as to what people really believe about the role of museums in society, especially history museums. While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence and even some site-specific research about the significance of history in American life, there have been few national research projects or surveys conducted in decades.

It has now been twenty years since the publication of The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, for which historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen surveyed fifteen hundred Americans about their connection to the past and its influence on their daily lives and hopes for the future. Though dated, this is still the most detailed picture of how Americans engage with the past and therefore how they view history museums. (The American Association for State and Local History [AASLH] summarized and synthesized these findings in two technical leaflets called the “Gift of History,” in hopes that they would be adopted and used by history museums.) Several important themes emerged from this survey about when Americans were most connected to the past and who they trusted to get this knowledge from.

The survey found that, second only to gatherings with their families, Americans most often mentioned visits to museums and historic sites as the situation that makes them feel most in touch with history. When asked which sources they most trusted for knowledge of the past, Americans put museums and historic sites first, ahead of grandparents, eyewitnesses, college professors, history books, movies, television programs, and high school history teachers. The survey demonstrated that America’s history museums have broad appeal and respect, while also having a real personal impact on Americans. People connect with the past when they visit museums and historic sites, and award these institutions a credibility that is greater even than an eyewitness’s account or a grandparent’s memory.

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These findings, now more than two decades old, have been partially corroborated only a few times since. For instance, in the 2008 study Interconnections: The IMLS National Study on the Use of Libraries, Museums and the Internet, over seventeen hundred adults rated museums and libraries as the most credible sources of information available to them in society. The IMLS study also showed that “the amount of use of the Internet is positively correlated with the number of in-person visits to museums and has a positive effect on in-person visits to public libraries.”

More recent research by Reach Advisors showed that history museums are the number one most trustworthy source of information in America. Reach Advisors’ survey asked participants to rate various sources on a scale, zero being not at all trustworthy and ten being completely trustworthy. History museums rated the top score of 6.7, followed by general museums scoring 6.4, and art museums scoring 5.9. Other sources polled on included Wikipedia, local papers, academic researchers and professors, all of which scored 5.7, followed by U.S. government and nonprofit researchers, which scored 4.9, and corporate researchers, which scored 3.6.

In the past decade, the most significant step in exploring these questions has been a grassroots effort of museum professionals known as History Relevance, which promotes a shared language through tools like a “Value of History” statement and other strategies that mobilize history organizations in the United States around the relevance and value of history. I’m honored to serve on the History Relevance steering committee that provides strategic direction for the coalition. We support history organizations that encourage the public to use historical thinking skills to actively engage with and address contemporary issues and to value history for its relevance to modern life.

This spring, Conner Prairie commissioned its own national survey to discover Americans’ views about the relevance of history and the role of museums in society today. Our museum has a long history of evaluating programs, events, and guest services on-site and surveying our members about their desires for new programs and benefits, but before this survey we had done little to survey public opinion or feedback from beyond our Metropolitan Survey Area. We desired more concrete data about how people are responding to living history presentations today, how they expect a museum to use over one thousand acres of land and 3.3 miles of river, and how they feel about Conner Prairie’s promise to be a place where the doors are always open to a diversity of voices and limitless experiences for everyone. We also asked people’s opinions about DEAI initiatives and the role of museums in education, entertainment, land and water conservation, and building community.

An independent creative market research agency surveyed over one thousand American adults who were representative by age and by regions in the United States. One-third of respondents were a parent or guardian of a child age seventeen or younger. More than half of respondents had completed some form of higher education. The margin of error fell within +/- 3 percentage points, with a confidence interval of 95 percent.

The survey confirmed many of the beliefs that history museums in particular have always known about the value of history. Considering Conner Prairie’s mission to inspire curiosity and foster learning, I found it really encouraging that 91 percent of Americans think it is important that people learn about history to build a strong foundation for the future, and that curiosity in history is expanding across the generations, with millennials leading the way (55 percent).

Some of the high-level insights of the Conner Prairie survey support the work started by the History Relevance campaign about why history is valuable to us personally, to our communities, and to our future.

  • 96 percent of Americans believe it is important to look at our history to inform our future.
  • 91 percent of Americans agree that it is important that people learn about history to build a strong foundation for the future.
  • 42 percent of Americans now have a higher level of curiosity in history as compared to this time to last year.
    • Millennials showed the highest level of increased curiosity, at 55 percent, compared to 42 percent of Gen Xers and 28 percent of baby boomers.

History is truly the foundation for strong and vibrant communities. A place only becomes a community when it is wrapped in human memory told through stories, traditions, and civic commemorations about the places we call home. History nurtures personal and collective identity in a diverse world, while allowing people to discover their place in time through stories of their families, communities, and nation. History museums are places where all these personal and collective stories can be discovered, but Americans are clear how they want to engage with these stories.

  • 91 percent of Americans are likely to consider visiting a history museum if it promises to spark their curiosity and immerse them in exciting opportunities to explore, learn, and discover.
  • 89 percent of Americans are likely to consider visiting a history museum if it promises to connect them more meaningfully to their past and open doors to help them better understand the world today and into the future.
  • 88 percent of Americans are likely to consider visiting a history museum if it promises to transport them to experience other eras and cultures.
  • 87 percent agree that Americans’ increasing interest in genealogy (tracing family history) shows that more people long to connect with their past to better understand their own personal journey, values, and who they are.
  • 78 percent of Americans agree that history’s relevance can be increased by museums redefining exhibits and programs into experiences that are current and timely.

At a time when our nation feels increasingly isolated and divided, it’s encouraging to see an overwhelming majority of Americans looking to our past to inform our shared future. With civility under attack, we need to create more opportunities and safe places for civil discourse across America. And with civics largely absent from today’s classrooms, museums can provide the tools and the places we need to have constructive dialogue about social tensions while still respecting each other’s thoughts.

  • 82 percent of Americans think it is important that history museums step up to create a sense of place and community for civil discourse and greater understanding.
  • 72 percent of Americans agree that history museums convene and engage citizens in meaningful conversations about our communities.
  • 71 percent of Americans agree that civics is largely absent from today’s classrooms.

History museums connect the people, thoughts, and actions of the past with the active memories and concerning interests of people today. “History matters across generations because it connects people to something larger than themselves,” said John Dichtl, President and CEO, American Association for State and Local History. “Institutions like Conner Prairie are redefining the museum experience, helping people engage with the past to better understand the world around them and developing solutions for the future.”

To this end, Conner Prairie is committed to driving intentional programming that delivers on our Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI) promise to be a place where “the doors are always open to a diversity of voices and limitless experiences.” The survey intentionally tested some of these concepts.

  • 79 percent of Americans think it is important that museums demonstrate a sustained commitment to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • 92 percent of Americans think it is important that museums are fully accessible to all guests.

“In our ‘Facing Change’ report, we encouraged museum leaders around the country to consider the principles of diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion as essential, sustainable values for museums to pursue as bedrocks of ethical and morally courageous museum work,” said Laura Lott, President and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums. “These survey findings confirm how critically important these principles are to museum guests and signal how the field can remain relevant to an ever-diversifying US population.”

Perhaps the most significant insights come from the segmented data that reveal generational views about history and how they use it at museums like Conner Prairie.

  • More than any other generation, millennials said it is “very important” to them that museums demonstrate a sustained commitment for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (52 percent of millennials, compared to 47 percent of Gen Z, 44 percent of Gen X, 47 percent of baby boomers, and 40 percent of the silent generation).
  • More than any other generation, millennials said it is “very important” to them that history museums protect the natural environment and engage guests in river and land conservation (52 percent of millennials, compared to 46 percent of Gen Z, 49 percent of Gen X, 42 percent of baby boomers, and 40 percent of the silent generation).
  • When asked which activities/exhibits would attract them to visit a history museum, people were most interested (74 percent) in “exploration into our past.”
  • More than nine in ten Gen Zers and eight in ten millennials would drive at least one hour to spend the day at a museum that promised the exhibits they were interested in. Four in ten (Gen Zers and millennials) would drive at least two hours.
  • Across the board, millennials are most interested in Conner Prairie’s broader programming, exhibits, mission, and offerings. Baby boomers are most interested in the opportunity to connect with the past.

Other noteworthy insights from the survey include people’s opinions about the role museums play in educating about land and water conservation, the role of history in teaching vital life skills, and about how museums engage families for entertainment and learning.

  • 84 percent of Americans think it is important that history museums protect the natural environment and engage guests in river and land conservation (52 percent of millennials think it is “very important”).
  • 82 percent of Americans agree that it is important people learn about history to develop critical thinking skills.

This may be the most important life and business skill one can learn. Historical thinking requires critical approaches to evidence and argument, develops contextual understanding and historical perspective, and provides the ability to interpret and communicate complex ideas coherently and with clarity.

Americans are also looking for ways to engage with their families in communal activities that make memories.

  • 76 percent of Americans were looking for new activities and different ways to celebrate the winter holiday season with family and friends this year.

So what do the results of Conner Prairie’s survey say about the relevance of history and the role that museums play in society today? I believe the findings are encouraging and help us better understand whether we can change the way the world views and uses museums in the future. I hope you will take the time to check further results of this important national poll on our website.

A final survey finding helps put this all in perspective. When Americans were asked to think about words that describe museums, the top three that came to mind were memorable (51 percent), academic (48 percent), and engaging (44 percent). If half of America believes that museums are memorable and engaging, then the museum community is well-positioned to engage Americans interested in a more civil future and inclusive communities. This means that the role of museums is not merely a curatorial process of preserving and presenting the evidence of the past; we can become architects that help build bridges across generations and cultures. The role of museums will continue to change and evolve with society—and who knows?—perhaps we can even change the world in the process.

About the author:

Norman Burns is the president and CEO of Conner Prairie in Fishers, Indiana. For more information on Connor Prairie’s Public Opinion Poll, he can be contacted at nburns@connerprairie.org.

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