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How Many Museums Is Too Many?

Some people would say there can never be too many museums. I would rephrase that to say there can never be too much art, but there can be too many museums. The U.S. may be there now.

IMLSlogoAccording to recently released information from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the U.S. has twice the number of museums previously accounted for — 35,144 museums nationwide, up from an estimated 17,500 museums in the 1990s. The count is based primarily on IRS 990 forms filed by nonprofit museums, botanical gardens, zoos, aquariums and historical societies between 2009 and 2013, reports the AP. The 1990s method relied only on state museum association records.

Equally interesting and sometimes troubling is the distribution by state and by discipline. The vast number — 48% — are historic sites, societites and houses. Historical societies claim another 7.5%. General and “unclassified” museums are 33%. Art museums? Only 4.5%. I really doubt that all of those historic organizations are sustainable. You can see the chart here.

Geographic distribution is also skewed. In raw numbers, California has the most museums and Delaware the least, lower than Arkansas, North Dakota, Wyoming and Hawaii, which round out the bottom five. New York, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio round out the top five. See that chart here.

The map showing museums per 100,000 population shows some of the trouble: The most museum-dense states are Wyoming, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. The South and Southeast — where populations are growing fastest — are the least dense in museums.

Art museums can helps solve the problem with traveling exhibitions, partnerships and collection-sharing. But not those historical societies, for the most part. I think there will be closures in the coming years.



  1. Rhonda Newton says

    I think it depends on the size and nature of the historical society. There are many small historical societies with a room at the local library that continue their work on an all-volunteer basis with a small budget for years.

    The challenge is for the future of the historic properties that some, formerly mid-size, historical societies operate. I think there will probably be more downsizing and mergers. We’ve certainly seen that in Pennsylvania. There were two major mergers about 15-20 years ago – about 4 museums/historic sites joining together to become the Historic Bethlehem Partnership. Several museums and the Historical Society of York County merged to become the York County Heritage Trust.

    In recent years, several museums/historic sites merged into Lancaster County Historical Society. In that case, two museum locations (one of which was part of the 2000s museum building boom) closed – neither in historic buildings – but the collections were saved and one of the staff members moved so that his knowledge wasn’t lost.

    There needs to be a recognition that we certainly don’t need more historic houses and/or sites with even more discussion of creative alternatives for preservation which has been a discussion within the community. It’s hard to convince a local community that is emotionally invested in its history that there are ways to honor and preserve that history without establishing yet another collecting institution.

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