Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site

Hoover Draws Fewer Tourists, Students
Historical Sites Nationwide Strive to Spark Interest

Erin Jordan

Des Moines Register

February 14, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

West Branch, Ia. It's ironic that the U.S. president who in his career standardized everything from road signs to lumber lengths would have his presidential museum suffer, in part, because of new government regulations.

Attendance at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, which celebrates the only U.S. president from Iowa, declined about 16 percent from 2004 to 2005. Museum Director Tim Walch said school tours have declined by about 50 percent in recent years.

"Because of No Child Left Behind, school principals and teachers are reluctant to send kids on field trips," Walch said, referring to the 2001 federal education law. "The link between school performance and museums has not been made strongly enough."

Attendance declined last year at six of the country's 11 public presidential libraries, and museums of all types are struggling to survive.

Today's families aren't as interested in history, Walch said, and there is more competition for people's limited leisure time.

What does this trend bode for new museums, such as the Iowa Transportation Museum being developed in Grinnell?

"The first word that jumps to my mind is 'sobering,' " said John Swanson, executive director of the transportation museum.

The museum, which got $3.6 million in federal transportation money last year, will have a business plan that considers nontraditional options, such as a mobile museum sponsored by a trucking company, Swanson said.

"The old ways of doing things won't work anymore," he said.

Some Iowa museums said their attendance has held steady or increased slightly in recent years. Living History Farms in Urbandale went from 138,000 visitors in 2004 to 142,000 in 2005 a 3 percent gain, said Chief Executive Sandi Yoder. "Our attendance is up, but the (downward) trend at historical sites is true nationwide," she said.

The Hoover museum, which doesn't track visitors' home states, had 55,565 visitors in 2005, down from 66,260 in 2004. In some years, most recently in 1989, the number has topped 100,000. Other presidential libraries took harder hits last year. Gerald Ford's library in Grand Rapids, Mich., for example, saw an almost 60 percent drop in visitors from 2000 to 2005, according to the National Archives and Records Administration, which runs the libraries.

Lois Crowley, social studies curriculum coordinator for the Iowa City school district, believes the Hoover museum has good educational offerings, but money and scheduling concerns are an issue for some districts.

"If it's a priority, we find ways to fund it,'' she said of field trips.

The Hoover museum's $1.7 million budget is paid by the federal government, so there is no danger of immediate closing, Walch said. But admission and gift shop revenue help pay for gallery updates, temporary exhibits and programs.

Walch would like to see upgrades that appeal to today's tech-savvy youngsters. One idea is a video game that allows children to help Hoover make tough choices, such as putting people back to work or feeding children, he said.

The Hoover staff is also taking the 31st president's story into the schools by dressing as historical figures and talking to classes, Walch said. The museum has raised $600,000 toward $1.5 million needed to film a Hoover documentary to air on the Public Broadcasting Service. The movie could also be put on DVDs for viewing in schools, Walch said.

"We feel there would be direct connection between the number of people who view the film and who visit the library," he said.