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$24M makeover readies Historical Society for new era

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Before building its Indianapolis headquarters in the late 1990s, the Indiana Historical Society shared space with the state library, its impressive collection of photos and documents crammed onto shelves lining the walls.

It's come a long way since then.

These days, IHS houses its archives in a state-of-the-art research library at Indiana History Center on the Central Canal. The facility also has become a community center of sorts, with hundreds of events held throughout the year.

Now, organization leaders are taking the next step--a Disneyesque makeover of the 8-year-old building and its programs. Their goal: to immerse visitors in Indiana's history.

As IBJ reported Dec. 3, IHS will pilot a series of interactive history lessons at the Indiana History Center next year before closing the facility for most of 2009 to refine the programming and make the building more visitor-friendly.

The not-for-profit has launched a $24 million campaign to fund the project, dubbed "The Indiana Experience." Leaders already have lined up $14 million, including an $8 million gift from local businessman Eugene Glick and his wife, Marilyn. The building will be renamed in their honor.

"What we're proposing will give visitors an in-depth and engaging experience," said CEO John Herbst, who came to IHS last year after stints leading the Indiana State Museum and Conner Prairie. "To make this a destination, we have to be able to satisfy someone who comes here and wants to be able to do something with Indiana's history."

Which isn't to say IHS wants to supplant existing museums. Because it collects archival materials, rather than artifacts, it can offer a different kind of experience, he said.

"We don't have to look at objects behind glass," agreed Michael Blickman, a partner at Ice Miller and chairman of IHS' board. "This is a way for people to step into history."

Among the plans: "You are There," a 3-D re-creation of historic photos that visitors will step into--literally--where they'll interact with costumed interpreters, and "Destination Indiana," where visitors will use a computer program to travel back and forth in time through photographs.

"We were very careful to think the components through so we can be complementary, not competitive," Herbst said.

The building renovations are intended to help visitors navigate the facility. A more prominent north-side entrance is planned, facing the parking lot, and a balcony overlooking the canal-level Stardust Terrace will be eliminated to create more usable space outside the 290-seat Basile Theater.

Herbst likened the changes to the tweaks a homeowner makes after living somewhere for years. IHS didn't offer these kind of programs when it moved into the $36 million facility in 1999, so it wasn't built to accommodate them.

"We have a better sense now what we can do," he said. "It's very much a kind of evolution. [The organization] took a big step in 1999. Luckily for us, we have the capacity to do more."

IHS gets about three-quarters of its $9 million annual operating budget from income generated by a $127 million endowment, which was fueled by a generous gift from pharmaceutical pioneer Eli Lilly. Contributions and grants make up about 8 percent, and the rest comes from so-called "earned" income like memberships and gift shop sales.

Herbst said the endowment helps IHS provide free access to its collection and archives, as well as the services it delivers to other history-oriented organizations throughout the state.

IHS will charge a $5 admission fee for "The Indiana Experience."

"Market research shows people will pay for a highly engaging experience," Herbst said. "We're adding significant expense to give a highly tactile, almost boutique experience to the visitor."

Annual operating costs are expected to increase $2 million once the program is in place. The agency has 61 full-time employees and 19 part-time staff; officials expect to add five full-time and 20 part-time positions.

But first, leaders must find another $10 million. Blickman and Indianapolis philanthropist Frank Basile are leading the fund-raising charge.

"I am really excited about it," said Basile, an IHS supporter along with his wife, Katrina. "A lot of people attend events at the history center, then leave and don't come back until the next event. This will bring them back and excite them about Indiana history."

Raising money during such uncertain economic times won't be easy, but the interactive programming just might be enough to get donors on board, said Kris Kindelsperger, a senior fund-raising consultant at Greenwood-based Johnson Grossnickle & Associates.

"Selected donors are always interested in new, innovative ideas," he said. "So if you create something that is different, the conventional wisdom about timing and donor fatigue may be mitigated."

Museums and other cultural institutions are constantly challenged to come up with new attractions to keep visitors coming back, he said, describing it in amusement park parlance as "the roller-coaster effect."

"You can't have a static collection; you need to have something new--a new painting, a traveling exhibit, whatever that might be," Kindelsperger said. "Give people a reason to come back, and it will impact both [fund raising] and earned income."

Purdue University professor Richard Feinberg agreed.

"Museums have no choice. They can wither away and die or become places of excitement and experiences," said Feinberg, director of Purdue's Center for Customer-Driven Quality. "It's the Disneyland approach. In today's multimedia world, they have to do it."

Herbst introduced some new elements at the state museum, which he led for two years. But despite costumed interpreters and blockbuster traveling exhibits like 2006's "Lord of the Rings" display, attendance is still lagging. Attempts to enhance the visitor experience at Conner Prairie were more successful, with attendance increasing nearly 50 percent during Herbst's 1998-2003 tenure.

"The Indiana Experience" is projected to draw 150,000 visitors to the history center each year, a quantum leap from the 30,000 or so that attend IHS programs there now. Another 100,000 come out for performances and other special events.

Feinberg said the new programs have potential--particularly given the center's location just a few blocks from the Indiana State Museum, which could drive attendance if the two organizations collaborate. The big challenge, he said, is making potential visitors aware of what IHS has to offer.

"Doing this is only 25 percent of the battle," he said. "Getting people in the door is another matter. This is going to require sustained effort and sustained funding. It can't be done in six months. They need to understand that."

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