Living-History Museums Struggle to Draw Visitors

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STURBRIDGE, Mass. -- Historical fact: In the 1830s, many rural New Englanders followed a religion so strait-laced that they did not celebrate Christmas.

Accordingly, at Old Sturbridge Village -- an outdoor museum where an 1830s town has been re-created down to the cider mill and the Gloucester Old Spots pigs -- they used to ignore the holiday as well.

Used to. Until, in the past few years, attendance started to slip. "How many times can you tell the story, 'They didn't celebrate it'?"
asked Susanna Bonta, a museum spokeswoman.

Now, in December the village gets a makeover that might make a Puritan -- or a historian -- blanch. There is a Christmas tree (not popularized in the United States until the 1840s), a visit from Santa Claus (who didn't take his current form until after 1850) and a series of nighttime tours showing the village lit by (electric) candlelight. These are times for creative thinking at the country's "living history" parks, where officials worry that their old formula of restored buildings, costumed interpreters and anvil-banging demonstrations is losing its tourist appeal.

Museums from Virginia to Michigan are trying to add an edge. How about a walk-through theatrical production? An overnight stay in a pilgrim's house? Who'd like to try on 19th-century replica underwear?

In this fast-moving age, apparently, just making the past come alive isn't enough. "It's just a larger, competitive world," said John Caramia, a North Carolina museum official and past president of the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums.

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