Evolution of a Museum: A History of Conner Prairie

Conner Prairie traces its lineage to William Conner. Trader, interpreter, scout, community leader, and entrepreneur, Conner came to central Indiana during the winter of 1800-1801 and soon fixed himself upon the land now encompassing the museum complex. He lived there until moving to Noblesville in 1837. During his 37-year tenure on the prairie he raised two families, built the two-story brick home that is one of Conner Prairie's focal points, and helped shepherd the transition of Indiana from wilderness to settled state.

The land passed out of Conner family hands in 1871. Over the next six decades it was repeatedly bought and sold, becoming just another fading property with an ill-remembered heritage. Fortunately for history and historical preservation, the land, house and their accompanying heritage were purchased in 1934 by a man of vision who understood their importance, Eli Lilly. It was to be the first step in the shaping of Conner Prairie.

Mindful of its significance and crumbling condition, industrialist and philanthropist of history Lilly began a careful restoration of the Conner house immediately upon assuming ownership. Consulting experts, hiring contractors and sponsoring research, Lilly restored and furnished the home to a vision of what it may have been like when William Conner lived there. Lilly's understanding of the house's historic context led him to surround it with outbuildings of the period. Over the next few years he added a still house, spring house and loom house. A log cabin, barn and a recreated trading post also added to the site comprised a nascent living history museum.

The land itself was not ignored. Carrying on another tradition, Lilly turned to agriculture and animal husbandry. Conner Prairie Farm became a showcase for the latest methods of raising crops and prize animals until it was phased out in the early 1970s.

Lilly, a great promoter of education, knew the value of Conner Prairie as a tool to inform the public about their shared history. He enthusiastically opened the site to the public. History-minded groups, individuals and countless schoolchildren were given tours and saw their heritage brought to life. Over the years Lilly sought ways to broaden the educational possibilities of Conner Prairie, calling it "one of the most important historic monuments in the State of Indiana."

With this goal in mind, in 1964 Lilly transferred Conner Prairie to Earlham College, which continued to operate the farm and offer historic tours of the building and grounds. Conner Prairie explored various methods of interpreting the past to visitors. Regularly scheduled hours were established and added to the arranged visits. Special events like quilting bees and shows, craft demonstrations, and special holiday programs were added to the guided tours. Visitation increased from 2,800 in 1964 to over 28,000 in 1969.

As the ten-fold attendance increase indicated, there was great interest in the museum and its programs. By 1969 it was agreed that Conner Prairie was approaching a turning point. A decision had to be made about the site's future. Working groups comprised of Conner Prairie staff and the Conner Prairie Advisory Council concurred that expansion was needed to place the museum in the forefront of the burgeoning outdoor museum movement.

As a result, planning for the recreation of a typical early 19th-century Indiana village began. Research into the period was conducted and historic buildings from all over Indiana were moved to Conner Prairie. The village, now 1836 Prairietown, opened formally in March, 1974 with six major buildings. Like the small communities it represents, Prairietown has grown over time and now contains over twenty main structures, which serve as homes or workplaces for residents.

Conner Prairie’s other historic areas also underwent change. In 1983, the Pioneer Adventure Center was formed out of the old trading post complex. Again showing Conner Prairie’s commitment to new educational methods, the PAC emphasized hands-on learning and evolved into today’s family-oriented PastPort Discovery area in which visitors may actively take part in numerous historic activities. The present, modern Welcome Center (which replaced the barns and farmhouses that previously housed museum facilities) opened in 1988 and was remodeled in 1999. To ensure the Conner House would remain for future generations, a painstaking re-restoration and refurnishing of the home occurred from 1991 to 1993.

As a new century approached Conner Prairie embarked upon an ambitious expansion program to enable the museum to tell a wider range of stories and interpret new eras. The first steps were a move backward in time from 1836 Prairietown. The Lenape Indian Camp and McKinnen’s Trading Post opened in 2000. Set in 1816, the new historic area allowed Conner Prairie to interpret Indiana’s Native American past and the often troubled interaction between Indian and White cultures. 2000 also witnessed the debut of the River Flatboat. This ambitious effort at hands-on experimental archaeology saw Conner Prairie craftsmen employ period tools and technologies to build an 1830s era flatboat. The flatboat made its debut with its sailing on the White River on July 4, 2000 and now sits on its bank, open to visitors.

The museum moved forward to 1886 with the opening of Liberty Corner. Evoking a rural crossroads hamlet, the first phase of Liberty Corner opened in 2001. It featured a recreated Quaker Meeting House, as well as a historic one-room school and covered bridge previously moved to Conner Prairie. The Zimmerman farm, showcasing a restored Victorian farmhouse, two barns, and recreated outbuildings debuted in September 2002. With these additions, Conner Prairie has preserved or recreated important parts of a rapidly disappearing historic landscape.

Equally important was Conner Prairie’s interpretive programming, which has made it an acknowledged leader in the museum community. First-person interpretation, pioneered by the museum, was introduced with the opening of Prairietown in 1974. Cutting edge programming which presented accurate history in an entertaining manner soon became known as the “Conner Prairie Concept” within the museum community. This tradition of entertaining, insightful programming based upon careful scholarship is a hallmark of the museum. In 1989 Conner Prairie was the only museum to receive a four-star rating in both authenticity and entertainment in a survey of living history museums throughout the nation conducted by US News and World Report.

In addition to its ongoing historic interpretation, Conner Prairie became noted for special programs like those concentrating on African American and Native American history. In 1998 the museum introduced “Follow the North Star,” its visceral, groundbreaking program during which visitors assume the roles of escaping slaves seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad. “North Star” is an example of the museum’s “immersion history” programs that allow visitors to become active participants in the learning process. Other immersion experiences include the “Fall Creek Massacre Trial” (introduced in 2001), a recreation of the trial of the accused murderers of Native Americans, and 2003’s “Weekend on the Farm” in which participants spend 1 to 3 days “living” on the Zimmerman Farm as they would have in 1886.

Conner Prairie’s continuing commitment to excellence has long been recognized, both by its peers (the museum has received multiple national awards from groups like the American Association for State and Local History and the American Association of Museums) and its approximately 350,000 visitors each year.

Now known as an interactive history park, Conner Prairie is opening its newest exhibit in June 2009 as the first step in a 10-year master plan to continuously evolve its outdoor and indoor experiences to engage guests of all ages and learning styles. 1859 Balloon Voyage will educate guests about the history and science behind ballooning while immersing them in 1859 Lafayette, Ind. The exhibit celebrates the 150th anniversary of John Wise's 1859 balloon launch from Lafayette, which was the first U.S. air mail delivery, and culminates in a voyage 350 feet above the prairie in a tethered, helium-filled balloon.