Should the Arlington Historical Society become more aggressive in its advocacy efforts for preservation, or would that split the membership into competing factions?
It’s a question the organization, founded in 1956, is starting to face.
“Some members may like the Arlington Historical Society to become more proactive and step up involvement in current-day debates – others may prefer that the society steer clear of such advocacy issues and focus on storytelling, exhibits, education and research on the past,” the organization said in a recent missive to members, which linked to an online-feedback address to gather input.
The society dipped its toe in preservation politics during the past year, weighing in on the battle-royale over the future of the Rouse estate on Wilson Boulevard. Ultimately, the 100-plus-year-old main building and its outbuildings were razed to the ground.
Whether to get more involved may be a case of trying to dodge quicksand; as was alluded to by the note to members, there likely will be a split between those who think the society should engage in advocacy on the one hand, and those who consider such behavior the equivalent of becoming engaged in politics.
(It is a challenge being faced by a number of local organizations, from the Arlington County Civic Federation to a host of service clubs. And there seems to be no answer that has satisfied everyone.)
And any changes would come amid the backdrop of the society’s attempting to raise funds in support of renovation to the Arlington Historical Museum, located in the former Hume School on Arlington Ridge Road. The renovation is likely to cost about $1.5 million to $2 million, and despite efforts to convince the county government to serve as a funding partner, elected officials thus far have shown limited enthusiasm.
The museum was closed to the public from the onset of COVID in March 2020 until July 4, 2021. And it was not alone: Visits to history museums, historical societies and other history institutions declined nearly 70 percent in 2020, according to a new report from the American Association for State and Local History’s Public History Research Lab.
Although surveys in prior years revealed strong visitation growth for history museums – especially small, local ones – last year’s disruptions resulted in a massive decline.
According to the recently published “History Organizations in a Year of Disruption: A National Visitation Report,” institutions of all types, all sizes, and in all regions of the country reported visitation declines of between 60 and 80 percent last year.
Declines were steepest at some of the nation’s largest history organizations, which are often more dependent on tourist travel than their smaller counterparts.
Institutions operated at less than full capacity for about nine full months. On average, institutions reported that they were closed to the public for approximately 23 weeks in 2020. They operated with significant capacity or other operating restrictions for an additional 16 weeks.
Small organizations, those with annual operating budgets of less than $250,000 – such as the Arlington Historical Museum – on average stayed closed longer than their larger counterparts.
Large organizations, meanwhile, attempted at least a partial reopening sooner and were more likely to resort to layoffs and furloughs of both full-time and part-time staff. Although about 65 percent of organizations reported they did not undergo staffing changes in 2020, likely thanks in part to federal assistance like the Paycheck Protection Program, small organizations resorted to such staffing changes much less frequently.
The American Association for State and Local History will survey the field again in early 2022 to determine if visitation rebounded in 2021.
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For information on the study, see the Website at AASLH.org/research. For information on the Arlington Historical Society, see the Website at www.arlingtonhistoricalsociety.org.