The excitement of amusement parks, interactive museums and ever-expanding zoos and aquariums has overshadowed heritage sites—but experiential technology and interactive exhibits are helping historical attractions to draw in the next generation of tourists.
From Antietam National Battlefield and Alcatraz to Colonial Williamsburg and Monticello, heritage sites have always been a popular way to experience U.S. history. Yet, a recent report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences Humanities Indicators project shows a steady decline in historic site visitation over the past 20 years or so.
“To convince overnight visitors that a visit is worth the expenditure, heritage sites need to raise the bar on the overall experience, including entertainment, lodging, dining and extracurricular activities,” says Dan Fenton, Executive Vice President with JLL’s Hotels & Hospitality Group. “A deeper level of thinking is required to turn a mundane field trip into an entertaining, educational experience for the whole family.”
Millennials are especially important for the country’s historical attractions. They currently spend more than $200 billion on travel, according to FutureCast. Nearly half of all Millennial vacations are weekend trips and 62 percent of Millennials extend business trips with personal vacation time, which provides ample time for historical site visits.
Going back in time to America’s oldest cities
Colonial Williamsburg is one major site that realized long ago that simple black-and-white signage wasn’t enough to win tourist entertainment and vacation dollars. Today, Colonial Williamsburg provides a blueprint for how historical sites can evolve, engaging tourists through online games, podcasts, music, photographs, videos and incorporating experiential reenactments, live performances and hands-on activities to stay relevant in a highly competitive entertainment and vacation market.
“Some heritage site leaders began to realize years ago that going to a museum or historic site and reading black-and-white text wasn’t interesting or engaging,” notes Fenton. “Visitors were not responding to that approach. And to compete for tourist time and dollars, you need to offer an experience that makes consumers say, ‘wow, that was really fantastic.”
Associated hotel properties are also undergoing makeovers to provide resort experiences offering something for everyone, including top-class spas, golf courses and restaurants. The Colonial Williamsburg Explorer mobile app provides an interactive map, a daily events calendar, and turn-by-turn directions, providing a modern twist on navigating “The Revolutionary City.”
When done well, experiential enactments can attract large crowds. However, they are significant productions and require coordination with actors, producers, directors, historians and other experts. At the home of Harry Truman in Independence, Missouri, for instance, development is underway for a visitor to be able to ask President Truman what he thinks about modern issues. Heritage site historians, scholars, producers, and actors are collaborating to extrapolate perspectives and thought processes from Truman’s presidency to answer questions such as “What do you think about climate change?”
Turning to technology
Some heritage foundations are revamping their sites to allow tourists to not only bear witness to history, but also to participate in it. In historic St Mary’s in Maryland, tourists can use in-period tools to construct leather goods, churn butter and shoot a bow and arrow, among other activities. The site is also peppered with re-enactments, including militia drills.
At the Sotterley Plantation, also in Maryland, tourists can enjoy nature trails and tour the plantation, in addition to visiting the slave quarters. To bring to life the horrors of this dark time of history, site actors speak to visitors the way slaves were spoken to, providing a sobering yet meaningful way to understand and connect to history.
“The goal is to bring the historic aspects to life, and there are multiple ways that to do that,” explains Fenton. “It can be as simple as working with actors or volunteers with engaging personalities to talk through exhibits, creating complex reenactments or giving visitors the opportunity to touch and feel tools and artifacts that relate to that time period.”
Some historic sites also are beginning to use virtual reality to provide a more engaging, personalized experience. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) in Springfield, Illinois, includes Ghosts of the Library, a holographic ghost show. As a live actor reads from the journal of a Confederate soldier, a crowd of holographic ghosts is projected from its pages, accompanied by the deafening sounds of a Civil War-era battlefield. Then, the ghost of Lincoln is projected into holographic existence out of thin air to read an excerpt from the Gettysburg Address.
Historic sites bring modern challenges
These interactive experiences and top-quality productions, however, require investment – including money, creativity and commitment from the site’s management.
“Heritage sites embracing this evolution face several challenges, including reconciling the entertainment ‘wow factor’ with the historical accuracy and integrity, attracting and retaining new kinds of talent, securing funding for site rehab, incorporating new technology, and more,” says Fenton.
“This requires an unprecedented amount of time, energy and funding, but even more critical than funding is committed leadership to ensure the project comes to fruition.”
While previous generations of families at historic sites may have been content with colonial tricorn hats for entertainment, new approaches are now needed to win over the modern visitor. It just might be time for that conversation with President Truman.