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?