That’s the question being asked in a Politico article written by M. Scott Mahaskey and Peter Canellos, that was published on the Fourth of July.
The lead on their story is “Attendance at historical sites suggests it might be time for a new way to tell the national story.”
They wrote that Colonial Williamsburg, for one, reportedly draws about half the number of visitors it attracted in the 1980s, the last decade of the Cold War.
Other iconic destinations also face flat or dwindling attendance: Civil War sites, once guaranteed to entrance the young, are among them. As a historical moment, Gettysburg will always be the high-water mark of the Confederacy, but the battle site happens to be at a 10-year low in numbers of visitors and far below the levels it drew in the 1970s.
Even places that depict American ingenuity in a difference way, such as by telling the story of flight, show signs of losing their claim on the imagination, with attendance at the National Air and Space Museum trending down over the last 10 years, despite drawing far more foreign tourists than in previous decades.
The writers says the sites are, in general, better preserved and thoughtfully and inclusively interpreted more than ever.
“Armchair patriots remain intrigued by presidential biographies and curious about lesser-known events unearthed on podcasts. But when it comes time to power up the SUV, Americans are heading elsewhere, passing up the chance to experience the dramatic turning points of the nation’s past,” they wrote.
The writers praise “America’s Historylands,” an essay written by the then-octogenarian poet and historian Carl Sandburg, who, they say, saw the connection between the big events of American history and the folk byways of American life.
Their point is that in the era of “America’s Historylands,” the story was “a robust tale of men and women who committed themselves to a series of ideals, and, when confronted with enormous challenges and painful disputes, forged onward, creating a form of government that is the envy of much of the world and blazing a path to great achievements in art, science and industry.”
During the Cold War, the narrative reached its apogee.
“When American ideals contrasted sharply with those of Soviet communism. Arguably competition with the Soviet Union drove the United States to improve its own domestic life, spurring Americans to address historic inequities in an effort to live up to the very story it was telling itself.”
The writers reported that Sandburg shrewdly argues that the story of the past should be understood also to be a story of the future.
“Visitors to the Gettysburg hillside, which thousands of soldiers marched up, mostly to their death, in Pickett’s Charge provokes the same sharp intake of breath, and evokes the same sense of awe in the face of humble sacrifice, if one fully perceives the sins of the Confederacy. A nuanced sense of the war only adds to one’s excitement, walking a quarter-mile farther to the patch of land where Lincoln declared ‘a new birth of freedom. The new is here and the old, the past and the present laid before you for your contemplation.
The past is prologue? Yes. Prologue to what? Prologue to the present. Yes! And we of the present, are we not prologue to the future? These may be intelligent questions, proper to ask, when starting on a journey to see our landmarks of liberty.”
We urge American families, grandparents, parents and children, to visit the nation’s precious historical locations to experience the poignant, emotional stories of the past.
Older Americans, who grew up on the American story and felt its magic, now grieve for a lost sense of American exceptionalism, but the past has not changed and the inhabitants of the United States should continue to experience the dramatic tales of how people fought to defend the freedom codified by our founding fathers.