Excursions into the Un-Remembered Past:
What People Want from Visits to Historical Sites


Catherine M. Cameron & John B. Gatewood

[ Copyright (c) 1998, Catherine M. Cameron ]

Paper presented at the 57th annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology, April 21-25, 1998, San Juan, Puerto Rico. [See published version in The Public Historian 22, 3: 107-127, 2000.]


Historical sites and museums, although unlikely to rival Disney World, have become increasingly popular visitor destinations over the past few decades (Jakle 1985; Lowenthal 1985; Mooney-Melville 1991). Lowenthal (1985:xvii) points out that history has become a booming industry with a heavy tourist trade. In the United States, Maken (1987:11) estimates that the approximate 36,000 historic sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places receive over 100 million visitors annually. Ironically, though, the interest in history does not parallel knowledge of history. Alderson and Low (1996:22) report that, as compared to the not-so-distant past, visitors are woefully uneducated about historic sites; they note that "[V]isitors at today's sites no longer come with as much -- or, sometimes, with any -- historical knowledge," a point also made by Jakle (1985:286).

Museum professionals know little about people's motivations to visit historical sites and museums. Marketing surveys are routinely done by the big museum corporations such as Colonial Williamsburg; however, they tend to be demographic assessments that describe visitors in terms of their residence, age, sex, occupation, and income rather than psychographic profiles. Although a deeper probing of people's interest in historical sites would be clearly in the self-interest of many organizations, it is not routinely done, possibly because of the expense for already financially strapped institutions or because museologists may not be trained to do surveys.

Nonetheless, museum professionals have developed theories about visitors' interests and motivations based on their own subjective impressions (Alderson and Low 1996:26). Nostalgia for a presumed simpler time and a search for one's roots are two of the reasons given for the appeal of history. In previous research (Cameron and Gatewood 1994), we have found nostalgia for an old-fashioned way of life helped explain why tourists would visit Bethlehem, Pennsylvania during the Christmas season. In this paper, we continue with our probe of nostalgia, not in connection with the Christmas program, but in a survey of people's desires for visits to historic sites. Our hypothesis is that, in addition to gaining information during their visit, people often seek a deeper and more meaningful connection with a place. We borrow the term numen from Latin to describe what many people want from their excursions. In its etymology, numen translates literally as a nod or beckoning from the gods and more metaphorically as a spiritual force or influence identified with a natural object, phenomenon, or place (WWWebster Dictionary, http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/netdict, 3/25/98). We believe that those sites that conjure in visitors a visceral or emotional response to an earlier event or time (that achieve a connection with the "spirit"of times or persons past) are highly valued. Maines and Glynn (1993:11) suggest that numen can equally apply to both places and objects, endowing them with a "special sociocultural magic" and inspiring reactions of reverence and awe [1].

Survey Findings

Our survey was administered to 255 people in the historic downtown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, over a period of several weeks during June 1995. People were intercepted on the street or as they left museums, i.e., the respondents comprise a convenience sample rather than a true probability sample.

The survey form was a combination of closed-ended and open-ended questions that assessed people's interest in historical sites -- both the time period and type of site, as well as the importance of certain features such as signs, guided tours, costumed actors, and the like. One question asked people to describe what might enhance their experience at an historical site, and another one asked what they sought to get out of their visit. These two open-ended questions helped us understand what was important to visitors and determine whether there was any support for our numen hypothesis.

The basic demographic characteristics are shown in Figures 1-5. There were 163 (64%) locals and 92 (36%) nonlocal residents interviewed in the research. They were well educated: 63% having a baccalaureate or graduate degree. Over half (55%) reported household incomes of more than $50,000 per year. Forty-six percent of the group were in their 30's or 40's, 35% were 50 years or older, and 19% were in their 20's or younger. And, there were 146 women (58%) and 107 men (42%).

Figure 1. 

Figure 2. 

Figure 3. 

Figure 4. 

Figure 5. 

Interest in Historical Sites

The respondents indicated a high level of interest in historical sites, generally (see Table 1). Almost two-thirds of the sample (157 people) said they were "very interested" in visiting such sites and 171 said that on a trip away from home they would be "very likely" to make a visit.

Table 1. General Interest in Historical Sites

                                     Very   Somewhat  Not Very    MEAN
                                     [ 3 ]    [ 2 ]    [ 1 ]
   General interest in visiting
   historic sites                     157       79       19       2.541

   Likely to visit historic sites
   while traveling                    171       56       28       2.561

Almost half the sample (122 people) said they had preferences for one or more particular time period. While there was a variety of responses to this open-ended question, the clear favorite was the Colonial and Revolutionary War period (54 mentions), followed by the 19th century or Victorian era (22 mentions), and the Civil War period (18 mentions).

In questions that polled people on their interests in particular kinds of sites (as opposed to time periods), Colonial history was again the clear favorite (see Table 2), followed in rank order by "Native American," "homes of famous people," "early industrial," "military/political," and "heavy industrial."

Table 2. Interest in Specific Types of Historical Sites

                                     Very   Somewhat  Not Very    MEAN
                                     [ 3 ]    [ 2 ]    [ 1 ]
   Colonial sites                     163       73       19       2.565
   Native American sites              126       97       32       2.369
   Homes of famous people             130       88       37       2.365
   Early industrial sites              97       96       62       2.137
   Military/political sites            85      112       58       2.106
   Heavy industrial sites              56       83      116       1.765

When asked about what was essential at historic sites, respondents considered "explanatory signs" the most important (see Table 3), followed in rank order by "hands-on displays," "costumed actors," "guided tours," "life-size displays," "large, colorful displays," and finally "audio recordings."

Table 3. Essential Features of Historic Sites

                                     Very   Somewhat  Not Very    MEAN
                                     [ 3 ]    [ 2 ]    [ 1 ]
   Explanatory signs                  204       41       10       2.761
   Hands-on/working displays          119       97       39       2.314
   Costumed actors                    119       87       49       2.275
   Guided tours                       119       86       50       2.271
   Life-size displays (diorama)       108      105       42       2.259
   Large, colorful displays           105       96       54       2.200
   Audio recordings                    59      108       88       1.886

Open-Ended Responses

In an open-ended question, we asked people to identify what things make an historic site particularly enjoyable for them. We then did a content analysis of their responses, grouping responses into categories and arranging them into a taxonomy (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. 

At the most general level, the responses broke down into three categories: one which pertained the Content at the site (204 mentions), a second one that had to do with some aspect of the Physical Layout or Amenities (110 mentions), and a third residual "Other" category (31 mentions) that included both "no/nothing" responses, as well as other unusual ones. Often, people would refer to two or three different things -- e.g., "The freedom to walk around. Accessibility of location and hours. Knowledgeable tour guides." -- such that we have 345 coded responses from 255 individuals.

The Content replies further broke down into those that stressed the importance of authenticity or accuracy (72 mentions), an informative presentation or interpretation (87), and an individual's ability to make some kind of personal connection, either emotional or cognitive (37). Specific aspects of informativeness were knowledgeable guides/good tours and good signs/displays. Under authenticity, people said they wanted "authentic presentation." They also said they liked sites that were not commercialized and contained period furnishings and costumed actors.

Among those references (110) to the Physical Aspects of the site, the majority of people indicated the importance of access, both physical and temporal, and amenities such as shops, restaurants, bathrooms, and general cleanliness. The importance of such creature comfort has also been noted by museum professionals (Briggs 1998; Bronikowski 1998). The other references were to aesthetic features (beautiful grounds and art objects) and friendly people, meaning guides and/or natives.

The second open-ended question asked people what they want to get out of their visits to historic sites. Once again, we arranged them into a taxonomy (see Figure 7).

Figure 7. 

Excluding the eleven "Other" outliers, the three categories of responses pertained to the desire for Information (185 mentions), Pleasure (43 mentions), and a Personal Experience of some kind (74 mentions). The information-seekers would often simply say "increased knowledge," "learn about the history," or "education." The pleasure-seeking comments mentioned the desire for fun, relaxation, or aesthetic appreciation.

The seventy-four personal experience responses varied a bit among themselves. So, we distinguished among those who see historic site visits as a way to create memories (7 mentions) -- e.g., "To leave with lasting memories" or "Something I can soak up and remember" -- and those who seek to make a personal connection with the place (63 mentions). For the latter, there were three ways of expressing this desire. One group said they sought to go back in time or escape, e.g., "I like to feel that for a short time you return to an era that's no longer there" or "[I want to take] a mental sabbatical into the past." A second group made reference to authenticity once again, e.g., "I want to see the real thing, no reconstructions". The third group stressed the importance of gaining information, but in a deeper way, often using the words "appreciation of" or "feel for" as in "get a feel for that time". Some of the best examples of this turn of mind are as follows:

and, perhaps the best quote illustrating numen-quest: Statistical Analysis

Given the rather high frequency with which numenesque comments appeared in our open-ended questions, we conducted several analyses trying to identify the demographic or attitudinal characteristics that correlate with numen-seeking.

The first step was to explore, through data reduction techniques, intercorrelations among the various "historical interest" variables. Principal components factor analysis with varimax rotation of fifteen items produced three orthogonal factors (see Table 4).

Table 4. Factors Loadings of Historical Interest Items

    Fifteen Items                      Factor 1    Factor 2    Factor 3
   Interest in Visiting Sites/Museums      .83         .04         .24
   Likely to Visit Sites/Museums           .81        -.12         .15
   Interest in Colonial Sites              .60         .19         .13
   Interest in Native American Sites       .55         .10        -.01
   Importance of Explanatory Signs         .32         .16         .29

   Importance of Costumed Actors           .17         .70        -.12
   Importance of Large, Colorful Displays  .02         .67         .16
   Importance of Guided Tours              .01         .63         .01
   Importance of Life-Size Displays        .08         .59         .19
   Importance of Hands-On Displays         .11         .55        -.02
   Importance of Audio Recordings         -.05         .46         .29
   Interest in Homes of Famous People      .40         .46        -.16

   Interest in Heavy Industrial Sites     -.03         .00         .85
   Interest in Early Industrial Sites      .19         .06         .75
   Interest in Military/Political Sites    .25         .06         .48
                         Eigenvalues:     3.371       1.981       1.463
                  Variance Explained:    22.5%       13.2%        9.8%

The first factor corresponds to something like "general interest in history." The second factor involves the "interactional potential of sites." And, the third factor might be called "appeal of the military-industrial complex."

Next, we used oneway analysis of variance to determine whether groupings based on demographic characteristics were non-randomly associated with the three historical interest factors.

Table 5. Historical Interest Factor-Scores by Demographic Variables
( F-ratio probability and Estimated omega2 )

                        Residence  Education  Income    Age    Sex
   Factor Score 1         ----       ----      ----     ----    .0213
      Interest in Visiting Sites/Museums                       1.7%
      Likely to Visit Sites/Museums
      Interest in Colonial Sites
      Interest in Native American Sites
      Importance of Explanatory Signs

   Factor Score 2         ----       ----      ----     ----    .0000
      Importance of Costumed Actors                           12.5%
      Importance of Large, Colorful Displays
      Importance of Guided Tours
      Importance of Life-Size Displays
      Importance of Hands-On Displays
      Importance of Audio Recordings
      Interest in Homes of Famous People

   Factor Score 3         ----       ----      ----     ----    .0000
      Interest in Heavy Industrial Sites                      13.1%
      Interest in Early Industrial Sites
      Interest in Military/Political Sites

Neither home residence, educational level, household income, nor age groupings showed a significant association with the three dimensions of historical interest. Sex, however, was related with all three factors (see Table 5): weakly with Factor 1, but fairly strongly with Factor 2 and Factor 3. As a group, women scored higher than men on the "interactional potential" factor. Conversely, men scored higher than women on the "military-industrial complex" factor.

Lastly, we compared the 70 individuals who made numen-seeking comments with all 185 other respondents (see Table 6). Although the numen-seekers were slightly more educated than the rest, analysis of variance showed no significant group-group differences on any of the five demographic variables. Shifting to the historical interest factors, the numen-seeking group scored significantly higher on the "general interest in history" factor, but did not contrast significantly on the second and third factors.

Table 6. Characteristics of Numen-Seekers

                            Numen-Seekers   All Others   F-prob./Est.omega2
                                 (n=70)      (n=185)
      Residence  (coded 1-2)      1.37         1.36       -----
      Education  (coded 1-4)      3.01         2.72       .0581 / 1.0%
      Income  (coded 1-7)         4.48         4.58       -----
      Age  (coded 2-6)            3.94         3.91       -----
      Sex  (coded 1-2)            1.57         1.58       -----
   Historical Interests:
      Factor Score 1             .2653       -.1004       .0091 / 2.3%
      Factor Score 2            -.0476        .0180       -----
      Factor Score 3            -.0274        .0104       -----

In short, numen-seeking is positively related to general interest in history, but it is not related to presentational 'bells and whistles,' to the specific nature of the site, or to any obvious demographic characteristic. Thus, numen-seeking appears to be a peculiar turn of mind -- an aspect of one's personality -- independent of sex, age, education, income, or residence. Clearly, the individual characteristics that go with numen-seeking should be explored further in subsequent research [2].


Numen-seeking -- the desire to have a more personal experience with a previous time period and its people -- has some parallels with motivations underlying people's travel to exotic locations. Beginning with MacCannell (1976), those who have written about ethnic and cultural tourism have suggested that many travelers are searching for more than just entertainment or a change of pace and location, but are also looking to find communities where people are socially connected with one another and do meaningful work. Graburn (1989) and Smith (1992) observe that travel can be consciousness-altering, a modern form of pilgrimage. According to van den Berghe and Keyes (1984), some travelers are searching for authenticity in the form of contact with organic communities. Norkunas (1993) notes that the Cannery Row section of Monterey, California, whose canneries have not been operational for many years now, draws legions of nostalgic visitors who almost expect to see the lower class community romanticized in Steinbeck's novel. Similarly, in our research on Christmas travel to Bethlehem, we (Cameron and Gatewood 1994) found that visitors are lured by the prospect of finding a contemporary community that celebrates the season in the "proper" way, i.e., non-commercially and deeply spiritually. Although we believe the Gemeinschaft image of the town is an over-statement, what is important is that visitors believe that they have entered a time warp in which they encounter a mythical Lake Wobegon.

There is an obvious difference between the communities tourists experience in their travels to distant lands and the communities they experience in travels to historically preserved sites such as Gettysburg and Andersonville, where the only living people are the staff and the visitors, themselves. Yet, it seems reasonable to assume that there are similarities between the experiences of space travel and time travel. In both, visitors are partaking in an imagined experience, whether that be the picture of local community life constructed by the tourist or the impression of a time period gained by individuals at an historic site or museum. In some ways, one could argue that the absence of living natives makes historic sites a more fertile field for the imagination. Such place-times can be almost anything one wants -- Rorschach tests with an un-remembered past as stimulus. As many writers have pointed out (Handler 1987; Handler and Gable 1997; Lowenthal 1985), history is not fixed, but subject to individual and periodic manipulation.

In some ways, time travel is "cleaner" and "safer" than foreign travel and, thus, possibly more appealing. With foreign travel, one always runs the risk of unpleasant dealings with the natives, lack of amenities, or distracting social problems such as severe poverty and sickness. With historical sites, it is relatively easy to conjure a past devoid of unpleasant social issues while viewing displays in air-conditioned comfort. On this point, Alderson and Low (1996:26) argue that, "Many people have a romantic view of the past that they believe was less hurried and more relaxed than the time in which they now live. They minimize or ignore the hardships of the past -- hardships that, by the way, are seldom interpreted at the sites". However, even in those cases where hardships are interpreted, they may be minimized. In their look at Colonial Williamsburg, Handler and Gable (1997) charge that historians, opting for a 'good vibes' approach to the past, present slavery in its most inoffensive way: Williamsburg interpreters make the case that conditions for slaves were better and that slave owners were more benign than elsewhere.

Currently, historical organizations in the United States are basking in the public's general interest in the past. Given the results of our research, how can museum professionals use the numen-seeking motive to attract more visitors and provide them with more satisfying experiences?

The implications of numen for display or exhibit design are fairly obvious. Curators must ensure that a site has a strong component of the personal, the human side of the time period being represented, so that visitors can make the connection they desire. This goal is probably easier to achieve in some sites than others. For example, in colonial sites that feature costumed actors doing skilled work such as carpentry or butter churning, visitors can easily imagine the pace and rhythms of life as it was in the past. But, providing the personal may be more problematic at industrial history sites that feature cavernous buildings and mighty machines. In such settings, the temptation will be strong to concentrate on the awesome scale and power of the artifacts, but site designers should balance these elements with the human side -- the workers, their graffiti, their occupational culture, and community life.

While museum organizations can use visitors' numen-quest to attract larger crowds, it is debatable whether encounters with numinous objects or places will produce, by themselves, a better understanding of history. Here is the real challenge for site designers and curators. Whereas numinous relics augment the psychological impact of displays, they do so piecemeal. Vividness is not the same as comprehension. Among a public that has been characterized as largely unfamiliar with the past, a site, however well presented, cannot fully educate the visitor. Nonetheless, numinous sites can increase visitor excitement and enthusiasm. Perhaps this is the most site designers can hope for. If visitors are sufficiently engaged and stimulated by their excursions into the un-remembered past, perhaps they will be motivated to learn more subsequently.



Note 1. We realize that we are not using the idea of numen exactly as Maines and Glynn (1993) describe it. In their rendering, numinous objects, in some cases, may be more like personal mementos or relics collected from the past whose association can be entirely esoteric to the collector.

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Note 2. There are several areas in which subsequent research should expand upon our exploratory efforts reported here.

First, respondents should be selected via true probability sampling. Only then could we estimate the base frequency of numen-seekers in the general population. In our convenience sample, there were 70 of 255 respondents, or 27.5%, who fit this description. But, given we interviewed people in the proximity of historic buildings and museums, perhaps 27.5% over-estimates the population's base frequency.

Second, we identified people as a numen-seekers depending on how they answered one open-ended question. If they were terse, in a hurry, or ill-at-ease with the interviewer, they may not have verbalized their true feelings sufficiently well for us to code them as numen-seekers. Longer, more typically ethnographic interviews might well identify more individuals as numen-seekers than did our single question. At least, such interviewing would have greater face validity.

Lastly, subsequent research should pursue the question of what correlates with numen-seeking by including personality and life-history items as well as demographic variables. This advice is based on findings from our exploratory research.

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References Cited

Alderson, William T. and Shirley Payne Low (1996) Interpretation of Historic Sites, 2nd edition. California: Alta Mira Press.

Briggs, Nigel (1998) Reaching a Broader Audience. Paper presented at the Industrial Museums Today Conference, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, March 27-28.

Bronikowski, Edward J. (1998) What Museums Can Learn from Other Kinds of Attractions. Paper presented at the Industrial Museums Today Conference, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, March 27-28.

Cameron, Catherine M. and John B. Gatewood (1994) The Authentic Interior: Questing Gemeinschaft in Post-Industrial Society. Human Organization 53:21-32.

Graburn, Nelson (1989) Tourism: The Sacred Journey. In Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism, 2nd edition. V.L. Smith, ed. Pp. 21-36. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Handler, Richard (1987) Heritage and Hegemony: Recent Works on Historic Preservation and Interpretation. Anthropological Quarterly 60:137-141.

Handler, Richard and Eric Gable (1997) The New History in an Old Museum. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Jakle, John (1985) The Tourist: Travel in 20th Century North America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Lowenthal, David (1985) The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacCannell, Dean (1976) The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Schocken Books.

Maines, Rachel and James Glynn (1993) Numinous Objects. Public Historian 15:9-25.

Mooney-Melville, Patricia (1991) Harnessing the Romance of the Past: Preservation, Tourism, and History. Public Historian 13:35-48.

Norkunas, Martha K. (1993) Politics of Public Memory. Tourism, History, and Ethnicity in Monterey, California. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Smith, Valene L. (1992) Introduction: The Quest in the Guest. Annals of Tourism Research 19:1-17.

Van den Berghe, Pierre and Charles Keyes (1984) Introduction: Tourism and Re-Created Ethnicity. Annals of Tourism Research 11:343-352.


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