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Conner Prairie testing ideas for new exhibits: Officials consider virtual canoe ride, hearthside dinners in effort to keep museum's attendance on upswing

April 30, 2007

The possibilities are intriguing: A tethered hot-air balloon ride. Old-time hearthside dinners prepared with farm-fresh ingredients. A wilderness-skill challenge that includes rock climbing and a virtual canoe ride.

Leaders at Conner Prairie are weighing which-if any-of those ideas would be a good fit at the Hamilton County living history museum, which is focusing on its future even as it works to preserve the past.

"The board is very committed to the idea that Conner Prairie must remain relevant and exciting to the public to accomplish its mission," said museum CEO Ellen Rosenthal.

Living history museums nationwide have grappled with sagging attendance in recent years, and they've come up with two answers: adding new attractions to draw more visitors or beefing up their endowments to cover operating costs.

Luring more guests seems to be the preferred method.

"Some museums follow a theme park model and try to add a new attraction or bring in a blockbuster, the equivalent of the big new thing," said Dennis O'Toole, a living-history veteran who has worked at Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg and New Hampshire's Strawberry Banke Museum and has led the American Association for State and Local History.

Conner Prairie is contemplating an addition even though it has been bucking the attendance trend, in part fueled by new enthusiasm since its split from Earlham College at the end of 2005.

Attendance was up 11 percent in 2006, to 123,005; memberships were up 15 percent, to 4,077.

And the museum already has a healthy endowment of $105 million. Still, leaders would like to be less dependent on it for operating costs, and that means keeping the community engaged-and coming back.

So with independence came a new focus on strategy. The museum started with community forums, asking neighbors, parents, staff and teachers what they liked about Conner Prairie and what was missing.

They also hired St. Louis-based Peckham Guyton Albers & Viets Inc., a heavy hitter in the destination-consulting business that has helped revamp Orlando's Sea World and the St. Louis Science Center.

Then leaders came up with a list of guiding principles and about 10 ideas for new areas or exhibits. In early April, they sent an online survey by e-mail to 15,000 individuals to get their opinions on five of the possibilities-which also include a Civil War-era experience and an experimental farm.

Rosenthal said some of the ideas, like the tethered hot-air balloon ride, break the mold of what Conner Prairie has traditionally done: re-creating historical settings with staff in period dress who stay in character as they talk to guests about their lives.

But even the balloon ride could be educational, Rosenthal said, showing visitors the scope of the museum grounds and the changes that have emerged as development has edged in.

"We pushed the limits, but when we went over the ideas with the board, no one fell off their seats," she said.

Chief Operating Officer Ken Bubp said the focus is on expanding the ways people can learn.

"We don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water, but we've been largely one-dimensional," he said. "We want to create a symphony of experiences."

The museum's last large expansion was in 2002, when it opened the Victorian-era Zimmerman farmhouse, the second phase of the 1886 Liberty Corner historical area.

The new ideas are more of a departure. Once the survey results come in, leaders will look at costs and decide which proposals to tackle.

"This has been a very step-by-step, measured process," Rosenthal said.

Conner Prairie isn't alone in looking to reinvent itself. Colonial Williamsburg has increased children's activities, rolled out audio tours targeted at teen-agers, and rebuilt its 5,000-artifact folk art museum in recent years, for example.

The Hamilton County attraction should be in the position to make the most of the opportunity given the amount and quality of feedback it gets from visitors, educators and neighbors, O'Toole said.

"They're not just paying lip service to the evaluative process," he said, calling its method for collecting feedback through audience surveys, focus groups and models "something that distinguishes Conner Prairie."

Of the ideas, O'Toole said he thinks a Civil War area would be natural because Americans find it "the single most appealing chronological period in American history."

And if the exhibit focuses on the war's impact on the Indiana home front-as the early proposal suggests-it would break ground, said University of Indianapolis associate professor James Fuller, since few museums delve into life away from the battle lines.

"On the other hand, life on the home front is often boring," he said.

O'Toole said some of the other proposals could go a long way to attracting new niche markets.

The hearthside dinners, for example, would bring in master chefs who use produce and herbs grown on the grounds to re-create historical meals-and modern cuisine served with local wines. Such an option could attract couples looking for a new date option or groups of adults getting together to dine.

Likewise, the wilderness challenge could appeal to "extreme sports" enthusiasts even Continued from previous page

as it educates them about how difficult it was to make it through the Hoosier frontier, he said.

As Web sites improve and people feel they can experience history without leaving their couches, museums have tried to turn up the intensity of immersive exhibits, said Elizabeth Wood, assistant professor and public scholar of museum studies at IUPUI.

"The stakes have gone up in terms of what counts as interactive," she said.

But she said living history museums still have a shot at capturing some of the "quiet magic" of combining outdoor activities with historical interaction.

U of I's Fuller liked the idea of expanding the museum's culinary history options but was concerned about the proposal considering a hot air balloon. Although balloon rides were part of 19th century fairs and carnivals, he's worried the pendulum might be swinging too far in favor of entertainment.

"What's next, a roller coaster?" he asked.

Rosenthal said the balloon ride was the idea she expected the most resistance on, but it fits with the fact that those in the field have been coping with a changing view of what's educational and how learning occurs.

"We're not just about dispensing information," she said. "We're about creating experiences that people can come back to in their minds."

Not all the ideas the museum is testing will come to fruition, she and others stressed, and those that make the cut likely will get several makeovers before they hit the ground.

"They're all just concepts at this point," Bubp said.
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