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CEO helps Conner Prairie educate by creating 'social experience'

March 10, 2012
rop-ellen-rosenthal15col.jpg Ellen Rosenthal wants Conner Prairie visitors to connect with one another as well as the past. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

A woman who married a man she met on an airplane knows how to follow her heart in life.

More on Ellen Rosenthal’s fairy-tale romance later, but first know that her passion for connecting families and building strong communities through shared learning experiences has made her a national leader in the evolving museum industry.

President and CEO of Conner Prairie Interactive History Park since 2006, Rosenthal has led a cultural transformation of the mostly outdoor museum.

Where visitors used to stand passively and watch a blacksmith hammer on hot iron, they now milk cows, make pies and weed herb gardens alongside Conner Prairie’s historic interpreters. They also converse with them more and listen to them less.

This hands-on, touching, tasting, smelling, group interaction is the way people learn, and the way they learn to love learning, said Rosenthal, 59.

“It’s essential that we create generations of curious people,” and museums should be an integral part of that process, she said.

Because people usually visit museums with other people, “learning happens because you wanted to spend time with someone,” she said. It’s a social experience, unlike classroom learning.

The museum field has been slow to catch on to this truth, Rosenthal said, to change from, “We’re the experts and you’re going to learn.”

But she felt instinctively, even during a job interview fresh out of grad school at age 26, that an art museum director was wrong when he told her the role of his museum was to be the “arbiter of taste” for the community.

The industry was “focused on what they had to tell people without any inkling of what people might be interested in,” she said.

Planting a seed

Rosenthal factboxThroughout her career, Rosenthal has sought out others in her field who were also interested in discovering what would excite museum visitors, how they learned, what would help them connect with one another and the past, and what would draw them back again and again.

Credit Rosenthal’s mother with getting her hooked on continual learning. Ruth Rosenthal grew up in a family that could afford college for only one of its four children; Ruth was not that child. That stung so badly, Ellen Rosenthal said, that her mother was determined to create her own life-long educational course and she drew her children into that world, taking them regularly to museums and theaters near their New Jersey home.

Then, as a 17-year-old exchange student in Stockholm, Sweden, Rosenthal saw bold changes in the ways museums interacted with visitors. That planted the seed in her head and heart for a new model of museum in the United States.

One of the people Rosenthal connected with over the years who shared her vision for engaging museum visitors was John Herbst. Herbst was president of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh, in the 1990s when Rosenthal served there as history center planning coordinator. He admired her organizational skills and her “wonderful way with people.”

She was so engaged and well-liked in the Pittsburgh community, Herbst said, that he threatened to wear a T-shirt that said, “I know Ellen Rosenthal,” to pre-empt the inevitable question.

So when he moved to Indianapolis in 1998 to lead Conner Prairie, he recruited Rosenthal to help him implement a grand expansion he envisioned for the living-history museum.

“We had personalities that were complementary to one another, which is important when you choose a person who is going to be second in command,” Herbst said.

Taking the helm

Herbst was ousted from Conner Prairie in 2003, over a dispute with then-trustee Earlham College. The Quaker school and the museum had sparred for years over distribution of funds from a trust instituted in 1964 by Eli Lilly primarily to support Conner Prairie.

Earlham fired Herbst and most board members in June 2003, appointing its own president and giving Rosenthal the title of executive director during the 2-1/2 years it took the Indiana attorney general to broker a separation agreement. Earlham eventually agreed to transfer $125 million in assets to the museum and its new foundation.

Berkley Duck, a Conner Prairie board member both before and after the Earlham takeover, said the dismissed directors were relieved the college allowed Rosenthal to run day-to-day operations.

“We knew she would have the best interests of Conner Prairie at heart,” he said.

He was impressed with how well she handled the pressure of the protracted ordeal, balancing Earlham’s expectations with trying to resuscitate staff morale. The newly minted 2006 board unanimously agreed to offer her the permanent CEO position.

Rosenthal accepted, and since Conner Prairie was now free to chart its own course, she energized the staff to broaden a self-examination it had begun in 2000 under Herbst. It was time to apply the anecdotal and scholarly research on natural, social learning she had accumulated through the years. The result was nothing short of a sea change at Conner Prairie.

The approach was so effective, in fact, that museum staff created a DVD/CD-ROM training course to spread the gospel. “Opening Doors to Great Guest Experiences” has been viewed by the staffs of more than 1,200 museums in 50 states and a dozen countries. Rosenthal said her staff deserves the credit for putting the visitor first, and developing ways to “get people excited about what you’re doing.”

“I started research on families here,” she said, then Conner Prairie employees took the information and learned how to train staff to apply it.

Duck said even her supporters on the board are amazed at what Rosenthal has accomplished so quickly. Although they were eager to reward her for holding the ship together in the storm, some had doubts as to whether she could run a $9 million not-for-profit long term.

“Wow, were we pleasantly surprised,” Duck said. Rosenthal has not only excelled at Conner Prairie, he added, but she has also established herself as a national leader in the museum industry.

Focusing on the future

These days, Rosenthal spends her time mostly on securing Conner Prairie’s financial future. New exhibits that opened over the last couple of years—chiefly the 1859 Balloon Voyage and 1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana—have been well-received. Attendance in 2011 was 218,000 and membership was 5,715, both slight upticks from the year before. Prairietown, the museum’s original and still-signature exhibit, is getting a face-lift this season.

But Conner Prairie can’t survive on visitors and members alone, Rosenthal said. It needs ongoing financial backing from the community. The museum “had a lot of catching up to do to build a base of supporters” when the tether to Earlham was cut, she said.

So Rosenthal works 11- to 12-hour days, six to seven days a week, speaking at schools and civic groups and at community events, wooing donors, reviewing grants, giving financial reports to the museum’s 41-member board or the seven-member board of its sister foundation. She blogs on the museum’s website and writes a newsletter.

The one thing she doesn’t do is serve as an interpreter. She can’t cook over an open fire or make butter, so she’s avoided the weeks of training required to meet the museum’s high standards of historical interpretation, she said.

Rosenthal is perfectly happy focusing on making Conner Prairie’s guests happy, she said. Her greatest satisfaction, she said, comes from watching families bond through the multi-generational stories they share with museum interpreters and one another.

She intends to make more of her own family connections when she embarks on a genealogical adventure at the end of this month to Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Poland and Ireland.

She hopes it will be a trip of discovery.

Which brings us back to how Rosenthal met her husband. She was living in Boston 30 years ago when she sat next to a Pittsburgh medical resident on an airline flight. The two had such a lovely chat about a shared interest in art that Rosenthal gave Ted Logan her business card.

Three months later, Logan called, asking her to meet him in Washington, D.C., where he’d be on business. She declined. Logan called back in two weeks, with a sudden urge to visit his sister in Boston. Rosenthal agreed to dinner. When her roommate asked that night how the date went, Rosenthal replied, “If I were forced to choose today whether to marry him or never see him again, I’d marry him.”

So she did.•

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