By Aubrey Hobart
Roswell Museum and Art Center
Curator of Collections
Recently, I read an article online that said that there were more museums in the United States than there were McDonald’s restaurants and Starbucks Coffee shops combined. People in the comments were shocked, but it didn’t surprise me at all. Every community has something worth preserving, sharing and celebrating.
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According to the American Alliance of Museums (aam-us.org), there are approximately 850 million visits to America’s museums every year. That is nearly twice the number of visits to all major league sporting events and theme parks put together — 483 million. With about 331 million people living in the United States right now, which works out to about two and a half museum visits per person per year. Of course, not everyone goes to museums, but those who do visit several times a year. Part of the reason for that is that there is a museum for everyone. There are enormous encyclopedic institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum or the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. that have a little bit of everything, but there are also thousands of smaller museums that focus on collecting just one thing, like guns, cars, dolls, mustards, Bibles or Bigfoot memorabilia. There are Holocaust museums, children’s museums and fashion museums. With American museums protecting and preserving over one billion objects, there is something in a museum somewhere that will interest any individual, from Muppets to motorcycles.
Closer to home, the Roswell Museum and Art Center (RMAC) facilitates moments of wonder with different kinds of people who have all sorts of interests. Folks have come from around the country to see our exhibit on rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard; I witnessed one guest almost break into tears at the sight of his pocket watch. Another visitor recently drove from Nebraska just to look at a single piece of Spanish Colonial Revival furniture that was made for the museum in 1937. A professor at the University of North Carolina will be flying out this summer to see some of Peter Hurd’s work in person. The things we preserve and protect have meaning for many people.
Polls suggest that conservatives, moderates and liberals agree on the importance of museums. Ninety-five percent of Americans, regardless of their political beliefs, approve of lawmakers who act to support museums, and 96% believe that the amount of government funding for museums should either stay the same (37%) or increase (58%). Astonishingly, museums are also considered to be the most reliable source of information in America. People trust museums more than newspapers, cable news, the internet, academic researchers, their friends and family, or any branch of government.
Museums are also good for communities. They support more than 726,000 American jobs. Collectively, American museums generate more than $12 billion in tax revenue every year with about a third of it going to state and local governments. The data shows that for every $1 that museums receive in funding from the government, they produce a return of more than $5 from tourism. Seventy-six percent of travelers participate in cultural or heritage activities while they’re on vacation. These travelers spend an average of 60% more money in the towns they visit than people traveling for other reasons, and all those sales and lodging taxes go back to the local government.
As educational institutions, museums are also great at supporting schools and learning. The typical museum spends about three-quarters of its educational budget on children ages K-12, and helps teach state and local curriculum. According to one study, kids who visited a museum in kindergarten had higher achievement scores in reading, mathematics and science by the third grade than children who did not, and this benefit even extended to the subgroup of children who were most at risk for delays in achievement. In other words, the informal education available at museums not only reinforces the standard education that kids get in school, but may help those who learn in different ways and whose needs aren’t always met in the classroom.
Some people think of museums as elite spaces for the wealthy and cultured, but museum staff throughout the country work hard to make their institutions accessible to people of all backgrounds. At RMAC, for example, we offer free admission and dozens of free or low-cost programs for adults, families and kids every year. We also change our exhibitions frequently to keep things fresh, and to explore fun, popular subjects like animals, the 1960s or outer space.
More than anything, museums are about us. The museums in Roswell, including RMAC, the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, the Miniatures and Curious Collections Museum, the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico and the Walker Aviation Museum, all help preserve our unique history. Together, they tell the story of how an isolated desert town became an important place for air and space pioneers, artists, farmers, cattlemen and all the ordinary people who have worked in Roswell, raised families here and called this city home.