What is a museum? There are many definitions. Among those with currency today are, in no particular order, pillars in our educational infrastructure, protectors and interpreters of our historical, scientific and cultural heritages and bastions of authenticity in an increasingly virtual world. Yet in a stubbornly stagnant economy, museums can be seen as crucial economic cogs for communities, large and small, all across America.
These days, museums are serving what is perhaps an unexpected function for U.S. communities, but a role our institutions have served for decades: as economic engines, creating jobs and generating business for companies large and small, but particularly small, in communities everywhere. In direct expenditures alone, museums annually inject more than $20 billion into the U.S. economy. America's estimated 17,500 museums employ more than 400,000 individuals. And perhaps most compelling in these times of tightening local budgets - and the slash and burn approach to budgeting at the federal level -- was a recent U.S. Council of Mayors study that found that, for every $1 invested in cultural institutions (including museums), municipalities saw $7 in tax revenues come into their coffers. That's a rate of return that would make even Warren Buffett swoon.
And that astounding return is due to the thriving cultural tourism industry in our country. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, cultural tourism accounts for $192 billion in economic activity annually.And many of those monies are spent with the local eateries, the local bed and breakfast, or the local gift shops in communities across the country.
Museums have long been cultural destinations in and of themselves. Trips including cultural and heritage activities comprise one of the most popular and significant segments of the travel industry, accounting for 23 percent of domestic trips. Clearly those trips generate economic activity for local businesses. Visitors to historic sites and cultural attractions, including museums, stay 53 percent longer and spend 36 percent more money than other kinds of tourists.
One needs look no further than Price to see the impact our museums have on our economy. The Prehistoric Museum, USU Eastern is a travel destination from a global community, seeing visitors from Japan, Germany, Sweden, and many other countries as well as scientists from around the world.
How do museums generate such economic benefits? The enduring popularity of museums is a major factor. The Prehistoric Museum attracts over 30,000 visitors annually. Nationwide, there are an estimated 850 million museum visits each year; that's more than the attendance at all professional sporting events and theme parks combined. Witness the fact that the Smithsonian Institution alone attracts 30 million visits each year.
All of this is to share the value museums bring to our communities every day, as economic sparks, as pillars of our education system, and as major contributors to the overall quality of life here in America.
We will be conveying that message to our elected leaders on Capitol Hill on Feb. 28, when more than 300 museum professionals from around the country journey to Washington to make our case to Congress. If you value our local museums, we urge you to join us by contacting your elected officials, at all levels of government.
The American Association of Museums' website www.speakupformuseums.org has a range of tools to help you.
Museums are vital to our communities and their economies. Help us keep our museums - and our communities - strong by lending your voice to ours, ensuring that the cause of museums is heard on Feb. 28.