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Conner Prairie to open interactive Civil War exhibit

December 1, 2010

Conner Prairie Interactive History Park will open a Civil War exhibit in June, hoping for a similar bump in membership and ticket sales as it got from its Balloon Voyage rides the past two summers.

The $4.3 million exhibit, dubbed 1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana, will take visitors through the experience of volunteering to fight Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan and his 2,400 Rebel raiders who crossed into Indiana in July 1863.

About 60,000 volunteers mustered in Indianapolis and traveled south to confront Morgan's troops. Through the use of video, theatrical staging, live action and hands-on experiences, exhibit visitors will be made to feel as if they are joining in with the volunteers.

"We can create this immersive experience and tell people you have just volunteered for this militia," said Conner Prairie CEO Ellen Rosenthal. "You were someone who volunteered. You were one who never expected to take up arms."

Conner Prairie, an outdoor history center located along Allisonville Road near Fishers, has raised $2.1 million of the needed funds and began construction of the exhibit in July. It will be located where the 1886 Liberty Corner has been for several years.

Conner Prairie CEO Ellen Rosenthal said she expects the Civil War exhibit to boost membership by 13 percent, which would bring in an extra $67,000. That's how much membership grew this year after the July 2009 opening of the 1859 Balloon Voyage ride.

The Civil War exhibit will be included in Conner Prairie's general admission. Conner Prairie's market research projects overall admission sales will get a $100,000 boost from the exhibit.

Total revenue and expenses at Conner Prairie totaled about $9.5 million in 2009, the latest year for which results are available.

Conner Prairie's timing is pretty good. With 2011 marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, historical institutions around the country expect interest to be especially high.

"The Civil War has enjoyed growing interest as we approach the sesquicentennial," said John Herbst, CEO of the Indiana Historical Society, who noted that the Civil War is always one the top five topics for researchers going through the society's archives.

Conner Prairie found the same thing. In an online survey, as well as focus groups conducted in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and Cincinnati, it found that the Civil War drew far more interest than other historical eras such as World War II or the 1960s.

"It was a landslide," said Rosenthal, who estimated that 80 percent opted for Civil War topics. "People are really interested in the Civil War."

Conner Prairie already hosts a Civil War re-enactment during one weekend each May. This year, the so-called "Civil War Days" drew more than 10,000 visitors.

But Conner Prairie has never had a permanent exhibit set during the Civil War. Its core exhibit, Prairietown, is set in 1836. It also has an exhibit on Native Americans set in 1816. Its Liberty Center was set in 1886.

Herbst, who was CEO of Conner Prairie until 2003, said it's a smart strategy for any cultural institution to keep freshening its exhibits, which gives visitors a reason to keep coming back.

"They have to change their offerings, add something new that really catches the people's attention," he said.

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