Looking Toward the Future: Challenges and Opportunities

The 16 National Trust Historic Sites chronicled in this issue, and 13 more you'll read about next year, shed light on the diverse history of the United States and the diverse organizations that care for this nation’s historic places. No two sites are alike. Some are owned and operated by the National Trust, others by local nonprofits. But all face two common challenges: the severe downturn that has beset the economy since 2008, and the radically changing U.S. tourism market.

The recession, and the turmoil that followed, affected all sources of revenue at historic sites, from admission and program fees to donations, grants, rental income, even retail sales. At the same time, the sites continued dealing with a shift in tourists' habits. Summer vacations used to mean getting into a car and stopping at historic places and museums along the highway; vacations today often involve air travel, which skips over roadside attractions.

Historic sites have responded in widely varying ways. Many have reduced staff and aggressively pursued donated services and more favorable maintenance contracts. But some National Trust Historic Sites have embraced an unexpected opportunity to rethink operations. They're reconsidering the traditional historic house museum model, with its guided tours through period rooms, and reworking agendas to include more community-focused and preservation-based programs. This represents a major cultural shift for staff, boards, members, and donors. And it promises a more sustainable approach for sites over the long term.

Some of the innovations already introduced are straightforward, such as the 2-for-1 admission offer available to local residents at President Lincoln's Cottage in Washington, D.C. Others are more ambitious and far reaching: Cliveden, outside Philadelphia, for example, is going beyond its walls to pursue the revitalization of the adjacent neighborhood, with hands-on workshops focused on historic house repairs, meetings to promote dialogue on community issues, and a summer program for teenagers to learn about careers in historical and cultural organizations.

We can't be sure how National Trust Historic Sites (and historic sites and house museums across the country) will function in the future, but we can accept the fact that past practices no longer guarantee success. The new reality requires dramatic and responsible changes, and it's our intention that National Trust Historic Sites will continue to lead by example, reinventing the historic house experience to engage visitors and revitalize communities.

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