Conner Prairie Balloon ride will carry up to 20 people 350 feet high

March 30, 2009
Conner Prairie will begin its outdoor season April 2 not as a pioneer-era museum but as an "interactive history park."

The new descriptor is part of a rebranding that includes a logo, signage and new look for television and radio ads. Conner Prairie has several new developments to tout this season, including an 1859 ballooning exhibit and ride, which opens June 6, and an affiliation with the Smithsonian Institute.

The whole effort stems from a 10-year strategy, completed in 2007, aimed at broadening the living history museum's appeal. President Ellen Rosenthal said she wants to overcome long-held perceptions, especially among people who haven't visited since their school days.

"They call us 'the settlement,' or 'the farm'," Rosenthal said. "They don't realize we have become a thoroughly hands-on, interactive place, and we're moving in a different direction."

As IBJ reported last fall, the $2.2 million ballooning exhibit pays homage to adventurer John Wise, who attempted to make the first air-mail delivery in a gas-filled balloon from Lafayette to New York in 1859.

The heart of the exhibit is a tethered, helium-filled balloon that can carry as many as 20 people in an enclosed gondola 350 feet high. Visitors may take the 10- to 15-minute ride for an additional charge, $15, or $12 for museum members. There is no discount for children.

Marketing Manager Michelle Runzer said the price of the "balloon voyage" is within the range of what people who participated in a 2008 survey said they were comfortable paying.

Conner Prairie estimates it will sell 6,000 balloon tickets a year, and have annual operating costs of $253,000.

Part of that expense will be covered by a $1 increase in general admission, which will be $12 for adults, and $8 for children.

The rest of the exhibit, which is open to everyone, builds on Wise's place in science history. He was the first to observe the jet stream. In response to feedback from teachers, Conner Prairie plans to add more science attractions that visitors will experience "through the lens of history."

Rosenthal said the museum will be rolling out other exhibits revolving around science and the environment.

"We have about four more projects, and I have two front-runners after the balloon project," she said.

She declined to go into detail about other developments in the works. Some older exhibits will be replaced, she said, but Prairietown, the 1836 settlement with costumed interpreters, will not change.

Anything that helps sell memberships, draw visitors, or win grants will improve Conner Prairie's bottom line. Rosenthal's ultimate goal is to reduce dependence on the $77 million endowment, which supports 56 percent of the museum's $10 million budget.

Everything Conner Prairie is doing these days has its roots in a survey or focus group. The phrase "interactive history park," for example, comes from hearing that many visitors didn't think of Conner Prairie as a museum in the first place.

Rosenthal said visitors tend to compare Conner Prairie to places like Gettysburg.

"They'll name an outdoor historic site. For some people, the word 'museum' is more confusing than an outdoor park," she said.

And calling Conner Prairie a park could make it an easier sell.

"The comments were actually very significant," Rosenthal said of the museum's online testing. "People said, 'I couldn't get my kids to come to a museum, but I can get them to come to something that's interactive and outside.'"

Harold Closter, director of affiliations at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., said museums everywhere are trying to liven up their images.

"People don't want to walk in museums and see things on walls and read labels," he said.

Conner Prairie has a reputation in the museum industry for innovation. It's published a CD-ROM guide to interacting with visitors called "Opening Doors."

"For what it started, and what it does, and the way it presents history, they're very much leaders in the field," Closter said.

Conner Prairie will be the first Smithsonian affiliate in Indiana and one of "very few" living history museums in the nation to carry the Smithsonian seal of approval, Closter said.

The Smithsonian Institute has 160 museum affiliates in 40 states.

Conner Prairie's affiliation, which costs $2,500 a year, means it can borrow Smithsonian artifacts and turn to experts for advice. The local museum's members will also get discounted access to the Smithsonian.

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