About 10 years ago, some of the region’s wealthiest philanthropists got behind a plan to help boost Philadelphia’s tourism industry with some high-profile investments on Independence Mall.
So both the Independence Visitor’s Center and the National Constitution Center were built, giving the northern edge of Independence Mall a grand new presence. That investment was followed by others: The Liberty Bell got a new home and the National Museum of American Jewish History opened up on the southeast corner of the mall, at 5th and Market Streets. These added to existing attractions near the mall, such as the African American Museum, the Betsy Ross House and Christ Church.
Now that the city is wrapping up it’s latest tourist season, the latest addition to this lineup of investment, the National Museum of the American Revolution, at 3rd and Chestnut Street, is just $10 million away from breaking ground. So it’s worth asking: Did it work? Are all these new buildings a success, and can Philadelphia support another history museum?
The answer is far from clear.
Last year, 2.4 million people walked in and out of the visitor’s center, all of them here to see why Philadelphia bills
itself as the “birthplace of the nation.” Of those, 2 million went to see the Liberty Bell, which is free. Independence Hall, which is also free but has restrictions on the number of visitors allowed inside, had a capacity crowd at 686,788 visitors.
But the numbers change considerably when it came to the newer attractions, where tickets can cost $14 to $15 per adult.
Fewer than 400,000 people bought tickets for the National Constitution Center, which is right next door to the visitor’s center (total visitors to the center totals 828,000 because the count includes people who attend non-ticketed events and lectures). The Jewish History Museum, housed in an elegant new building just one block to the east, drew barely more than 100,000 visitors – less than half the number originally projected when the museum opened two years ago. And the more established African American Museum, which is two blocks away at 7th and Arch, got just under 65,000 people – so few it’s now open only four days a week.
Expectations vs. reality
These numbers are alarming. They also should raise questions about the newly re-opened Ben Franklin Museum, which is off Chestnut Street near 4th, and the soon-to- be-built American Revolution Museum, which are building their business plans around a goal of 500,000 ticketed visitors per year. Failure to meet goals in paid visitors often results in deficits, which in turn can lead to cuts in staff, programming and hours – and sometimes all three.
That is what happened at the National Constitution Center and the Jewish Museum, both of which are trying hard to put their problems behind them. They’ve brought in new leadership, trimmed spending and are developing programs they hope will attract a broader and more reliable audience of repeat visitors.
But they don’t yet have clear solutions.
“We’re still trying to figure out exactly what our optimal and realistic attendance numbers are,” said Yael Eytan, director of marketing and communications for the Jewish History Museum. “In the past, there have been some cases where these projections been made in a less scientific way than they should have been.”
The same is true of the National Constitution Center, which suffers from the fact that it doesn’t have a core collection of objects that people will pay to come and see.
“We’re still really trying to define our audience,” said Steve Rosenberg, Vice President for communications at the National Constitution Center. “It’s not like walking around the mall in DC, where you can just walk in and out of every museum for free,” he said.
The NCC hopes to boost attendance by as much as 10 percent next November, Rosenberg said, when they add one of 12 surviving copies of the original Bill of Rights to their exhibit. And soon, they hope, they’ll start making money off the American Spirits exhibition, which they spent just more than $2 million to put together.
Some of the problem may be price. The Betsy Ross House, a tiny little building four blocks off the mall, with a suggested donation of $5, gets about twice as many visitors as the much larger Jewish history museum. The same is true of Christ Church, which suggests only a $3 donation.
Some of it may be even more problematic. Like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, both the Betsy Ross House and Christ Church are authentic specimens of history – the actual buildings that existed at the time of our history that visitors are coming to discover. Why pay high tickets prices to get in a contemporary building, one that doesn’t even display objects that are clearly rooted in Philadelphia’s “birthplace of America” history?
It’s a lesson that planners for the newest addition to the mall say they have taken to heart. “We’ve taken a careful, objective look at what the marketing data tell us about the people who are coming,” said Zee Ann Mason, director of marketing and communications for the American Revolution Museum. “The heritage visitors come here to discover the founding history of America. They are single minded in that purpose – almost to the point of having blinders on.”
Michael Quinn, the American Revolution Museum’s president and CEO, said he thinks their new museum, which will feature George Washington’s tent, will help solve problems for the existing institutions on the mall, not cause new ones.
“I look at this and feel that we’re very close to having achieved the kind of critical mass for heritage tourism that having the Barnes has done for the art tourism,” he said. “This museum could well be the thing that really vaults Philadelphia to that premier status for heritage tours.”
Whether or not that turns out to be true may in part depend upon how well all these institutions work together, and whether they can all add up to become something that’s more than the sum of their parts.
“With anther new player coming on, the question really becomes, how do you integrate that story into the whole story, or series of stories, that we’re already telling,” said Meryl Levitz, CEO of Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation. “That’s the question that everybody’s asking. How do we best link the story of the American Revolution with the resulting story of the constitution?
Funding dries up
Times are tough for all history museums, even the successful ones.
Rusty Baker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations, says the current fundraising environment presents a “perfect storm” of challenges.
“These museums are not built to automatically be sustainable,” he said. “And state funding has been cut off for three years, foundations have less money to spend, or are changing their focus and spending on other things, and corporate money is also less available.”
The African American Museum, which had for many years been largely dependent on state funding, is a case in point.
“When Corbett zeroed out our funding, it wasn’t a gradual thing. It was a big and sudden hit, and that was money that allowed us to keep the lights on,” said Patricia Wilson Aden, president and CEO of the African American Museum.
But even the museums that weren’t so dependent on state money are hurting, and badly.
“It’s getting harder and harder for each of us, and for the group collectively, to figure out how to sustain ourselves,” said Page Talbott, Interim President of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
In Philadelphia, Talbott said, there’s a relatively small base of funders who are willing to support historical organizations. As a result, she said, “every new entity that comes into the mix is potentially pulling off support.”
Rosenberg agrees. “Think about how many new institutions have been built in the last 10 years,” he said. “They have sucked a lot of money out of the market place.”
Under this theory, the American Revolution Museum may not be providing “significant mass,” but just more competition for scarce dollars.
Problems became even more acute this year, because they city’s anchor for historic tourism, Independence National Park, was hit hard by federal budget cuts.
Independence Park closed five buildings on and around the mall this season as a result of the federal budget sequester: The Todd House at 4th and Walnut, the Bishop White House at 3rd and Walnut; the Declaration House at 7th and Walnut, which is where Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence; the New Hall Military Museum in front of Carpenter’s Hall, and a small museum at 318 market, which houses the fragments of Franklin Court.
The closures meant that people who lined up for Independence Hall had nowhere else to go when tickets ran out – which routinely happens before noon.
“I feel like this summer we had a lot of unhappy visitors, and it has not been a pretty picture,” said Jim Cuorato, president and CEO of Independence Visitors Center. “We tracked the numbers, and we think that, conservatively, we had about two or three thousand very unhappy people walking out our doors every day.”
“Look, the more attractions we have to offer visitors, the better, and survey after survey shows that history is the number one reason most visitors come to Philadelphia,” Cuorato said. “So I think the American Revolution Museum will fit well into the mall.”
At the same time, though, he wants to raise money to refurbish his own building next year, though he knows it will be hard.
“I’ll be out there with my hat in my hand.”