I feel that when most people hear the word “museum” the first things that comes to mind are paintings hanging on a wall or an old house filled with furniture you can’t sit on. The emphasis is on collecting objects and artifacts and using them in a static way to try to connect the past with the present.
Throughout its history, I’m not sure that Conner Prairie has ever fit that traditional definition. Although we do have a permanent collection of about 28,000 artifacts, these objects have always been looked at as a learning collection, one that is meant to be able to be examined and used in various ways by our craftsmen, facilitators and guests to bring Indiana’s history to life.
One area of collecting that is not normally thought of is not really material, but more “living”. Historic skills, heirloom plants and rare livestock breeds are all parts of this “living” collection. Of course the surface value of a repository of such things is evident: the excitement a young visitor gets in seeing the blacksmith work the forge and anvil or being able to see some of our cute ossabaw hog piglets.
But the reason for making an effort to preserve skills and biodiversity goes deeper than just surface level. Maintaining a variety of historic plant and animal varieties keeps a deeper genetic base that can be used to improve or back up our modern hybrids. It can also provide areas of research using traits not exhibitied in modern hybrids. Such a case is IUPUI’s study of diabetes utilizing the ossabaw hog’s resistance to the effects of diabetes.
The historic skills Conner Prairie helps to preserve are utilized through our facilitation on the grounds, reproducing objects for our guests to use and also through classes taught throughout the year. One unique teaching opportunity will be occurring this week (Feb. 13-17th) as I instruct members of the 5-19 Agricultural Development team, Indiana Army National Guard in basic blacksmithing skills. This group’s mission will be to help locals in Afghanastan set up sustainable and profitable farming practices. As part of this, it was felt that Conner Prairie could be of great assistance.
The purpose of the class will be to teach the group’s members how work with the local Afghans to set up a blacksmith shop in primitive conditions, and using simple tools and scavenged steel, make the tooling necessary for blacksmithing as well as to make simple farm tools and repairs on those tools. The goal of the mission is to give the local Afghans the resources needed to be more self-sufficient and provide a better living for themselves.
It’s very rewarding to think that a technology that is thousands of years old is being preserved here at Conner Prairie and able to be used to help people in an international way.