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Catherine Hughes has a passion for telling untold stories

By Jason Ballenger
Online Communications Specialist

Conner Prairie’s Director of Museum Theatre and Research Catherine Hughes is a rock star in her field, a seminal force in museum theater.
 
Catherine wrote a book about museum theater (that sells on Amazon by the way), founded a successful non-profit that connects other museum theater professionals worldwide, and has blazed the trail for others in her profession.
 
She got her start in the industry by playing Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, while working at the Museum of Science in Boston. Ada Byron King was an early 19th-century mathematician from England who is credited with being the first person to recognize the full potential of a "computing machine" and the first computer programmer.
 
It wasn’t always that way, as the countess, known as Ada Lovelace, never really got the recognition she deserved for many years. Catherine has always had a passion to tell these kinds of untold stories.
 
“That has been a bent of mine through my career. The first character I ever played, Ada Lovelace, people would say, ‘Who’s that?’ I had men who would listen to the play and say, ‘Huh, Ada. That’s funny. I use a supercomputer language in my work with the U.S. Department of Defense named Ada.’ And I would say, ‘I know. It’s named after her.’ They thought it was an acronym. That filled me with a mission to get her story out.”
 
She said the Giving Voice project -- an initiative that will host several plays about Frederick Douglass at Conner Prairie in July -- was created out of this passion to tell untold stories. Before she found her way to Conner Prairie, she was fulfilling her mission by transforming guest experiences through theater at the Atlanta History Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
 
“When I was at Atlanta, they clearly had an imbalanced story of history. It was about the prominent white people of Atlanta, and they knew it. They wanted to change that, and so I focused on African-American history there because that was the story that wasn’t being told.”
 
One of the other major accomplishments, and one of the things she is truly known for is founding the International Museum Theater Alliance in 1990.
 
She said the seeds of this idea were planted when she reached out to the London Science Museum to see if they wanted to incorporate theater into their museum with her portrayal of Ada Lovelace. She got the job but said she was surprised that they had already been doing museum theater for a few years, and that her proposition wasn’t entirely unique. “That experience made me realize, ‘Wow, other museums are doing this, too,’” she said.
 
This evolution continued when she was a speaker on museum conference panels and met David Parry from the Canadian Museum of Civilization and Robert Swieca from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia. They agreed that a networking organization would help various museums communicate and could serve to encourage others to pick up theatre as an interpretive technique.
 
“I found out that all these different places do the same kind of thing, but you don’t know about it. That’s why I started the International Museum Theater Alliance as a non-profit organization so that other people could understand that, ‘Oh, I’m not alone. I’m not doing this work in a vacuum.’”
 
Catherine served as the executive director of the Alliance from 1990-2002, after which she decided to pursue her doctorate in theater, which she earned from Ohio State University. Others have taken the mantle, and have been doing great things since.
 
Be sure to see Catherine’s great work in collaboration with Asante Children’s Theatre in the upcoming performances of “More Light: Douglass Returns.”