Conner Prairie balloon ride part of 10-year strategy

October 13, 2008

In August 1859, scientific adventurer John Wise left Lafayette at the helm of a gas-filled balloon bound for New York City with the nation's first air-mail delivery. An ill wind blew him off course, ending his flight in Crawfordsville, but he still earned a place in history--and a U.S. Postal Service-issued stamp honoring his pioneering effort.

Now Conner Prairie wants to pay homage to Wise and the early days of aviation. The Hamilton County museum is planning an interactive exhibit that would culminate with visitors hitching a ride beneath a 92-foot-tall helium balloon as it ascends 350 feet, about the height of Indianapolis' City-County Building.

Conner Prairie is working with the Fishers Town Council to amend its zoning ordinance to accommodate the tethered balloon. A hearing is expected next month.

The $2 million project is the first step in Conner Prairie's newly developed 10-year master plan, put on hold for years as the living-history museum battled former trustee Earlham College for control of its destiny and $100 million-plus endowment.

"Conner Prairie has been in a holding pattern for a long time," said CEO Ellen Rosenthal, who took over in 2003 when her predecessor was fired and most of the museum board dismissed during the governance dispute. "We are looking to grow, to change, to better meet the needs and interests of our visitors."

Its late-2005 split from Earlham already appears to have done wonders for the museum, which saw admissions and membership increase by double-digit percentages in both 2006 and 2007--bucking the sagging attendance trend at similar institutions nationwide. General admissions surpassed 138,000 last year and were up another 12 percent by the end of August, said Marketing Director Lisa Farris.

Despite the recent growth, Conner Prairie leaders know they must keep the attraction fresh if they want visitors to keep coming back. The museum's last major expansion was in 2002, when it opened the Victorian-era Zimmerman farmhouse, the second phase of the 1886 Liberty Corner historical area.

Officials began plotting the next steps more than two years ago, convening community forums to get input from neighbors, parents and teachers alike. In April 2007, they sent about 15,000 people an online survey asking for feedback on five specific ideas: the balloon ride, a wilderness-skills challenge, an experiential farm, old-time hearth-side dinners and a Civil War-era experience.

At the time, Rosenthal expected resistance to the balloon ride, but she said extensive market research found the opposite to be true.

"People just loved this project," she said. "It's linked so closely to what we do--making history exciting. It's the kind of project you can only do at Conner Prairie."

'Absolutely brilliant'

Indeed, the 1859 Balloon Voyage, as it's being called, is a one-of-a-kind experience, said Tom D. Crouch, senior curator of aviation at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Unlike balloon "thrill rides" at places like New York City's Central Park and the Philadelphia Zoo, Conner Prairie's Balloon Voyage will provide visitors with the appropriate historical context, he said.

"Ballooning was really a big deal in the 19th-century Midwest," he said. "Balloonists set out every spring and by the Fourth of July they would be drawing crowds in little towns. ... They'd usually put up a fence and sell tickets. People could go and watch them inflate the balloon, and they'd talk about flying--what it's like up there--and then [spectators] would watch them take off."

After the Civil War, the big tethered balloons like what Conner Prairie is proposing were popular attractions at international fairs and expositions, he said.

Crouch, who consulted with the Fishers museum on the history of ballooning, called the idea of building a historical exhibit around a balloon ride an "absolutely brilliant thing for a place like Conner Prairie to do."

"On other rides, you can go up and see the zoo or the ocean," he said. "At Conner Prairie, it is going to be part of a real historical experience they're already immersing visitors in."

Getting input from existing and potential visitors also was a masterstroke, said Elizabeth Wood, an assistant professor of museum studies at IUPUI. Museum leaders usually have a vision for the future, she said, but that's not worth much if it doesn't fit with what its audience needs or wants.

Making that connection can help museums get visitors actively engaged in their exhibits--something that is becoming increasingly important as institutions look to prove their value.

Wood, who co-authored an article on engagement published in the Journal of Museum Education this summer, said one way to measure how involved visitors become is to look at ways the experience changes them.

"Are they doing anything differently? Thinking about history differently?" she asked. "Those kinds of things are what makes museums different" from shopping malls or theme parks.

Still, some critics don't draw a distinction between an exhibit like Conner Prairie's--being designed to lead visitors through interactive exhibits that also will explore the science and technology of aviation before the optional balloon flight-=and more entertainment-oriented options like the Kombo roller coaster at the Indianapolis Zoo.

Roller coasters and carousels at not-forprofit attractions most often fall into the realm of non-program activities: efforts that support an organization's mission but don't necessarily further it the way core programs do.

Such activities are important, nonetheless, said Indianapolis Zoo CEO Michael Crowther. The zoo's rides, food stands and retail operations don't help the organization protect and preserve nature, for example, but they do provide revenue that feeds animals and pays staff.

That's not to say core programs can't be entertaining. Take the zoo's dolphin shows, which regularly delight visitors even as they educate them about ways to make conservation-minded behavior changes.

"If you follow the principles of what you're trying to accomplish, you certainly can make non-traditional programs support the mission," Crowther said.

That said, he cautioned against trying to have one program serve both masters--making money and advancing the mission--calling that the "quickest way to fail."

If the zoo charged admission to its dolphin shows, for example, it likely would increase revenue but could lose some of its audience, compromising its ability to spread the conservation message.

Rosenthal is confident Conner Prairie can avoid that trap despite plans to charge non-members $10 for the balloon ride (members would get a $7 discount).

Historically accurate

Visitors will leave the museum center and step back in time to 1859 Lafayette, complete with storefront facades, historic streetlamps and two-dimensional spectators. There, they'll learn about Wise's mission and the technology behind his "flying machine," and even take part in an aeronaut flight school.

All the main components of the exhibit will be accessible to visitors without extra charge, Rosenthal said.

"Even without riding the balloon, the exhibit will be fun and educational," she said.

And everyone will be able to see the balloon's 15-minute up-and-down trip three or four times an hour.

That goes for the costumed interpreters portraying life in 1836 Prairie Town, too, but the Smithsonian's Crouch said it's entirely possible that balloons were part of their real-life landscape, too.

"That's something you would have seen throughout the Midwest in the 1830s," he confirmed.

Guests who take the ride in the enclosed gondola will be able to see how the Hamilton County landscape has changed from the time William Conner settled there. They'll take in the museum grounds, including several hundred acres of undeveloped land in the increasingly urban county, and on a clear day should be able to see downtown Indianapolis.

Museum leaders are explaining to neighbors their plans the week of Oct. 13. In the meantime, staff is hard at work designing the exhibit, which is tentatively scheduled to open in June--two months before the 150th anniversary of John Wise's flight.

About $1.3 million of the $2 million price tag is in place, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau, a $150,000 pledge from the Conner Prairie Alliance, and a matching grant from the Conner Prairie Foundation. The foundation controls the museum's endowment.

The annual cost of operating the exhibit--staffing, maintenance and upkeep--is projected to be $253,000. Leaders expect revenue from about 6,000 ride tickets and an anticipated 7-percent increase in admissions will cover the expense.

With other, as-yet-undisclosed elements of the 10-year plan waiting in the wings, Rosenthal said she is excited about Conner Prairie's prospects. The Balloon Voyage is a good first step, she said.

"We have long been known for searching out little-known but significant stories from Indiana's past," she said, "and this time we happened on a real doozy."

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