2011 is the 175th Anniversary of the year 1836, and marks the 37th year of Conner Prairie’s interpretation of the year 1836 at Prairietown
. Whew! That is more than enough dates for one blog post, so I’ll quickly move on to exploring both how Prairietown began as well as how Conner Prairie hopes to keep the 1836 time-period exciting and relevant to folks in central Indiana long into the future.
Prairietown officially opened to the public in 1974, at a time when the excitement about America’s Bicentennial was at its height. Then Mayor of Indianapolis, Richard Lugar, and the Lieutenant Governor of Indiana, Robert Orr attended the opening ceremony. In doing research for my MA in US History thesis I came across the program from the opening event in 1974. This program affirmed that William Conner‘s
life was still an essential part of the stories that Conner Prairie told, and then described the philosophical backdrop for the historic village, “as we expand the number of buildings and the scope of the interpretation, one thing will remain constant with us--our determination that every architectural detail, each craft product, every explanation by a guide is completely true to the past.”
Even from Prairietown’s beginning, there was clearly a strong sense that the village needed to be meticulously researched and well-documented so that visitors would be able to enter a “completely true” representation of the past. However, Prairietown’s creators understood that mere adherence to the historic record could become dull and uninspired if it wasn’t matched with an entertaining presentation. Myron Vourax, Conner Prairie’s director at the time, wrote in 1975 that, “for education of people to succeed--for their minds to be changed by the Conner Prairie experience--they must be in part entertained on the tour. People can‘t be told the tour is going to be educational--because few come to a restoration to be educated. People want to be entertained. Education through entertainment is the key to a successful tour experience at Conner Prairie Pioneer Settlement.”
With the development of Opening Doors
in 2004, Conner Prairie’s award-winning initiative to refocus on guest engagement through interaction between staff and the public, Prairietown returned to this entertainment-driven approach. It has been a joy to be a part of a cultural change at Conner Prairie that has brought the organization new-found respect around the country as a leader in history engagement. The IMLS National Medal
(awarded in December 2010) and the Smithsonian Affiliation
status (achieved in 2009) are just two examples of the accolades we have garnered recently.
“As we reflect on the successes of the past, we cannot let ourselves remain placid or rest on our laurels. We recognize that our audience is always changing and that people are looking for interesting and unique ways to spend their time and money. Prairietown, as one of the most respected living history villages anywhere, will maintain the 1836 pioneer era as its focus. However, we will continue to explore new and exciting ways to make the Prairietown experience even more relevant and interesting to the countless guests of the future who will trod down its wagon-rutted paths and chat with its engaging townspeople as people have since 1974.”
What do you like about Prairietown as it is now and want to see strengthened in the future? What new ideas do you have for Prairietown?
David Allison - General Manager for Experience Delivery
Fall is nearing its end out on the Prairie, and with it exits obstreperous school children learning and laughing in Prairietown
, the family fun opportunities at Lenape Camp, balloon flights to 350 feet and exciting animal interactions at the Conner Homestead. Another successful season has wrapped up at Conner Prairie.
So what do managers do during the “off-season”? Of course, although the outdoor activities and historic areas are closed until April, the Welcome Center with the ever-popular Discovery Station
and Craft Corner
are still up and running in November, January, February and March (Thursday-Sunday, 10am-2pm). And December brings a plethora of holiday experiences like Gingerbread Village
(Tuesday-Sat., 10am-5pm and Sunday 11am-5pm) and Conner Prairie by Candlelight
(Friday and Saturday nights the first three weekends of December). January through March also features the scrumptious deluxe experience at the Conner House that we call Hearthside Suppers
(various weekend evenings in those months). Running these experiences takes some of our time for sure, but without the outdoor areas, we still find ourselves with time to work on other projects. Below is not an all-encompassing list, but should help give a little behind-the-scenes glance into our day-to-day winter projects.
-The winter months become time for staff to step back, rejuvenate ourselves creatively and to rethink programs and activities. We are constantly refining the experiences we offer based on survey findings and staff input to provide the highest quality activities we can for you.
-We are rolling out an exciting new experience in the area formerly known as Liberty Corner.
(Look for an update about this area in the next three weeks!) All of us are chugging away to create a brand new exhibit that will “wow” everyone starting in June of 2011.
-Recruiting, hiring and training new facilitators are a big push in February and March. We are always looking for engaging, enthusiastic staff to help us provide consistently excellent experiences for you. This takes lots of time and energy to find the right people and get them trained in the “Opening Doors”
-Deepening our content, engagement and administrative skills through trainings and seminars helps us maintain our status as leaders in the museum field.
I think I speak for most Conner Prairie staff when I say that the “off season” really is a misnomer, since our wheels are still spinning as fast as ever, but they are just pointed in a different direction. The winter allows us to keep innovating and providing the types of experiences that will inspire curiosity about Indiana’s past long into the future.