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Conner Prairie draws record crowds, ramps up programming

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The Conner Prairie interactive history park in Fishers drew a record 246,000 visitors during 2013, mostly during the traditional outdoor season from April through October. June and July are its busiest months.

Now museum leaders are working to build on that success by ramping up year-round offerings and introducing programs designed for grown-ups.

CEO Ellen Rosenthal on Wednesday unveiled plans for Adults on the Prairie, events that will build on Conner Prairie’s popular Hearthside Suppers and hands-on lessons in historic trades like blacksmithing and woodworking.

“Adults kept asking us, ‘What’s in it for me?’” Rosenthal said.

Conner Prairie’s answer: experiential learning and food.

Its so-called Discovery Series will include workshops on topics like fermenting food (presented by Indianapolis’ Fermenti Artisans), iPhoneography with local expert Rad Drew, illustrations and landscape painting lessons from the Indianapolis Art Center, and a hog-butchering demonstration from the folks at Smoking Goose.

Prairie Plates, meanwhile, will open up the historic grounds to area chefs and food artisans for special events highlighting the farm-to-table and craft drink movements.

Restaurateur and Chef Neal Brown, owner of Pizzology in Carmel and Libertine in Indianapolis, plans to offer a modern take on time-tested cuisine to diners at the Golden Eagle Inn in 1838 Prairietown, for example. Local Chef JJ Boston will serve a historically inspired dinner on a long table set up inside a covered bridge in the 1863 Civil War Journey area—a venue that drew murmurs of approval from museum backers and community leaders who attended its annual meeting Wednesday night.

Attracting adults is just one part of Conner Prairie’s plan to broaden its appeal. It’s also revamping the indoor Create.Connect exhibit, funded with part of a $2.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, and “reimagining” the nearby Discovery Station and Craft Corner areas.

Create.Connect, set up in the museum Welcome Center’s 2,400-square-foot atrium, integrates history with hands-on science activities now centered on wind power, electricity and energy. The next phase, expected to open March 27, will add early aviation (including a wind tunnel) and a 1950s patent office to the mix.

When Conner Prairie’s outdoor areas reopen this spring, Craft Corner and Discovery Station will close for about two months of renovations.

Plans call for transforming the craft space into an open art studio, allowing “children of all ages” to try their hands at historic crafts in addition to more modern projects. The play area for children 6 and younger, meanwhile, will get a climbable apple tree, a farmers market and pioneer garden, ride-on trains and new dress-up opportunities.  

The tree is a “tip of the hat” to the Conner Prairie Alliance, the women’s auxiliary that runs the museum’s Apple Store each fall (selling the fruit, not the computers). The group donated $60,000 toward the $200,000 project.

The museum is open four days a week from November through April, and six days a week during the outdoor season.

Rosenthal said the effort to increase year-round activities is a response to feedback from members looking for more value. And the indoor programming has proven popular even when the historic grounds are open.

“It’s weather resilient,” she said. “In Indiana, it seems like about half the time it’s either too hot or too cold to be outside all day.”

Daily attendance was up 12 percent last year, Rosenthal said during the annual meeting. Membership increased 21 percent, to 6,737.

The museum also reported its eighth consecutive balanced budget, with revenue of $9.9 million outpacing expenses.

Visit Hamilton County executives Brenda Myers and Karen Radcliff are excited by Conner Prairie’s plans, saying the changes should appeal to travelers of all ages.

The museum already draws visitors looking for family-friendly activities—which will become even more important when Westfield’s Grand Park Sports Complex opens this year, they said—but Hamilton County also draws plenty of adults traveling alone.

“We’re already bringing in adult leisure travelers” who typically visit in fall and spring, Radcliff said.

Myers agreed. “This makes so much sense.”

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