Better days on the way for museum:

January 1, 2007

Things are improving for Ellen Rosenthal.

For more than two years, she kept Conner Prairie on track while a battle raged over control of the Hamilton County living history museum. Now she's leading the institution's rebirth.

For the first time since 2000, Conner Prairie finished its fiscal year in the black. Attendance and memberships are up, and fund-raising is recovering after bottoming out at less than $100,000 in 2004.

The museum's two newly appointed boards-one to oversee museum operations and one to handle its finances-certainly deserve credit, but Rosenthal's steady hand no doubt kept the ship from sinking during the worst of the turbulence.

Now that what she calls the "dark days" are over, she's not looking back.

The museum has completed the first phase of its national reaccreditation, a process that languished after former trustee Earlham College dismissed all its independent directors in June 2003.

Conner Prairie also is updating its strategic plan now that it controls a multimilliondollar endowment and 830 acres of land around the museum. Rosenthal and other planners hosted a series of public forums in 2006 to solicit community input on the museum's future, and now they're working on turning the ideas into action.

To that end, museum leaders hired two firms to help sort through the land-use options: Indianapolis-based Paul I. Cripe Architects and Engineers and PGAV Destination Consulting of St. Louis.

Major changes are ahead, to be sure, but Rosenthal, 54, knows it's important to keep her staff focused on day-to-day operations even as the big picture comes into view.

She's proud of the way employees worked through the years of uncertainty that preceded Conner Prairie's 2006 independence-and expects them to keep giving visitors a quality experience.

That's the only explanation she can come up with for a 32 percent increase in general admissions and a record 4,800 memberships sold in 2006: "Our product is better than ever," she told IBJ last month.

With Rosenthal at the helm, Conner Prairie was one of only three entries included in Frommer's new travel guide, "500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up." It also received an ARTI Award from the Arts Council of Indianapolis, got an Indiana Achievement Award for Innovation from the Sycamore Foundation, and earned an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History.


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