Visitors to History

Monday, April 1, 1996
Description or Abstract: 


This report presents the results of a year-long survey, from October 1994 through September 1995, of visitors to the National Museum of American History (NMAH) on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  About 5,300 visitors were interviewed and asked about their demographic characteristics, the decision to visit the museum, activities during the visit, and their assessment of the visit experience and the museum. The report is a description and exploration of these visitor characteristics and visit experiences.

In general the NMAH audience, like those at the other large Smithsonian museums, is defined by the large proportion of visitors who traveled to the Washington area from other parts of the United States, by visitors' high levels of educational attainment, and by the roughly equal percentages of new and repeat visitors.

Some characteristics, such as the number of previous visits, the residence of visitors and the social composition of the visit group, varied considerably by season, reflecting the influence of time of year on vacation and travel plans. Overall about half of all visitors were coming to see something specific.

The most striking feature of the NMAH audience is its fascination with the First Ladies' exhibition. One in six visitors came to the museum to see First Ladies, two out of three went through the exhibition, and one out of four visitors found it the most interesting part of the museum. The exhibition was considerably more important to women than to men. 

Differences in the background and experiences of first-time visitors in comparison with repeat visitors indicate that people who live nearby, who have higher levels of educational attainment, and who have special interest in the objects or subject areas of the museum found their experience of the museum most rewarding. While first-time visits tended to be social events, return visits were more personal and private. In addition, the First Ladies exhibition drew former even more strongly than new visitors, suggesting that many visitors wanted to see the exhibition repeatedly.