Ellen M. Rosenthal

View from the Prairie Blog

Ellen M. Rosenthal, President and CEO
Ellen Rosenthal

Ellen M. Rosenthal

President and CEO

Hello, and thank you for sharing an interest in Conner Prairie, an institution that strives to spread excitement about education by engaging and enlightening each guest who visits.

Sitting in the lobby of the Los Angeles Convention Center where the 103 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Museums (AAM) is taking place, I can’t help but think about the first time I attended in 1983 when the meeting was held in Philadelphia. Still, a rather new professional, I had completed a master’s degree program in American arts and museum studies five years before and was working in my second real museum job at the American History Workshop, a museum consulting firm in Boston.

Admittedly, what I most recall of that meeting was that after I decided to leave early to go back to Boston, I changed my airplane ticket (you could do that easily in those days), and  got the last seat on the plane, next to a young doctor in training who was flying home to Maine. That young doctor is now my husband of 26 years. We had a great conversation about paintings and the importance of museums. Small wonder that he immediately won me over.

I remember other things about the conference as well. Cary Carson, a historian at Colonial Williamsburg, reported on what visitors talk about when they look at objects in museums. It surprised me then to hear that their first reaction was to make connections to their own lives, “Grandma had one of those chairs,” or “I’ve got one just like that. I wonder if it’s worth a lot.”

Why was what he said surprising? Because in those days, museum people concentrated on preserving artifacts and presenting information to the public. We didn’t think a lot about whether people would be interested in what we had to say or how to make what we did “fun”.  In fact, the words “fun” and “museums” rarely appeared in the same sentence. (The few children’s museums at that time stood as exceptions.)

But times have changed since then. It took a while for Sesame Street and television shows like it to prove that we could learn while having fun and have fun while learning.

At the annual meeting this year, many speakers urged museums to find ways for many different segments of the community to feel at home. And, they stressed that we engage visitors in ways that are personally meaningful to them. Museum professionals no longer quibble about whether museums can or should be entertaining; there is a broad understanding that in order to survive they must remain relevant and interesting to 21st century audiences.

I feel proud of how far museums have come since the early 80s; they’ve become catalysts for lifelong learning, places for quality family time and for nurturing curiosity among children. I am also proud that Conner Prairie has come to be seen as a leader in the field.

This year at AAM, three panel sessions and one on-line panel featured Conner Prairie as a role model for how to grow and thrive. In fact, we were named as one of nine “Magnetic Museums” that uses mission-focused planning and programming to deliver a total brand experience and offer audiences new emotional connection points and experiences.

I’m curious to know your reaction to changes in museums in the last quarter century. Do you like museums better now or then?
Posted: 7/19/2010 12:10:51 PM by Michele Stratton | with 0 comments

Despite the long and dreary winter, we can tell spring is almost here at Conner Prairie. New lambs have already begun to arrive. Staff are busy cleaning up structures and grounds, building new shelters for animals and acquiring materials for programming.

People outside Conner Prairie often ask me if I enjoy the slow season here, meaning the winter when the outdoor areas are closed to the public. That's like asking someone who is expecting 35 people for Thanksgiving if she enjoys the relaxation before everyone arrives for the turkey. In other words, we are busier than ever in the winter.

This year we have been simultaneously preparing new programs and activities for 2010; look for a new seamstresses cabin with a historic clothing try-on area and an end of the day party in Prairietown, as well science programs every Saturday. We're also planning new exhibits for 2011 and 2014. Our expectations are so high for every new program that it's sometimes hard to find things that meet our standards. First and foremost, programs have to be fun for both adults and kids, and they can't lose their learning connection. Then, we like to explore new areas in ways that other museums have never thought of. We try to prototype or actually try activities with guests before we introduce them to make sure they work.

I think we've succeeded this year as we have in the past with creating experiences that are so much fun you never notice you are learning, but we are always open to suggestions in order to improve. Please let me know what you like that's new, what you don't and what you wish you and your family would be able to do at Conner Prairie.

It's going to be a great year! I hope you'll be part of it.

Posted: 3/3/2010 10:36:08 AM by Ellen Rosenthal | with 0 comments

Donation requests for disease research and disaster relief regularly flood my mailbox, reminding me continually of the great sorrow in this world. Sometimes I wonder why I devote my time to a museum when there is so much else to be done, and how I can ask people to donate to support Conner Prairie's mission.

At times of doubt, I think of my husband Ted, a dedicated physician who treats patients who are very sick with skin or kidney cancer but also does clinical research to advance options.

We've been married for 25 years, and in that time I've witnessed the incredible demands of such work. Overseeing care, answering questions, and emergencies have mean't that he missed kids' soccer games and school ceremonies. He's spent family outings on the phone, and come home too late for family dinners. (Once when Ted actually got home for dinner, my oldest son said, "Look Mom we have a special guest tonight.")

It may surprise you to know, that through the years with Ted, my appreciation of the value of places like Conner Prairie has grown. Ted loves to come to Conner Prairie. It is a place where our family can connect, where we can share stories about our families, where we can learn about Indiana, our adopted home. He finds mental renewal here. At Conner Prairie, he actively engages in learning; he's fascinated by the story of the Lenape Indians and finds the environment rejuvenating. Since its opening last year, the 1859 Balloon Exhibit has become his favorite experience - Ted and my son, Daniel, are pictured above.

As I've gotten older and the evanescence and fragility of life has loomed larger, my appreciation has grown for places like Conner Prairie that enrich our communities and allow us all to continue to learn and grow.

Efforts to cure illness and alleviate suffering must be supported; but my husband who spends too many hours in front line care would be among the first to assert that without places for enrichment and renewal, the entire community suffers.

Posted: 1/21/2010 6:38:08 PM by Ellen Rosenthal | with 0 comments

It's always exciting to visit New York City in December. The lights...the window displays...the energy. On a recent visit, I was particularly excited to see the new American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That part of New York's iconic museum contains the stuff I studied while earning my first master's degree in Early American Culture from the H.F. DuPont Winterthur Museum between 1976 and 1978.

Thirty years ago when I was a student, collectors of Americana focused on objects made or used in the original 13 colonies before 1840. States beyond those on the seacoast were largely ignored even though there were well over 25 states by the mid 1800s. If you visited the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan, or the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the 1970s, you saw the same kinds of American furniture and silverware from the East Coast, and ceramics and glassware from the States or Europe and Asia.

As the time for our visit to the Met approached, I wondered if the collection displayed in cases and in period room settings, might now include things from a wider range of states such as Tennessee or Utah. Would the timeframe be extended into the 20th century? Would the Metropolitan attempt to tell the full American story?

What I found was a newly designed and very beautiful space. My kudos to the curators, some of whom are fellow graduates of the Winterthur program. Objects individually displayed in the balcony galleries now date from throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, and they come from a greater number of states. In contrast, only two or three of the period rooms venture into the second half of the 1800s. And, only one room, a stunning installation taken from a Minnesota home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, steps into the 20th century and represents the Midwest.

Having lived in Indiana for 10 years, I can't help but wish that the Metropolitan would expand the geographic representation of the room displays. Granted, the mission of an art museum is to present the best examples in any art form, not to comprehensively review. Nevertheless, New York City is the place where many international visits to America begin and end. I hate to think of tourists from abroad missing the fuller and much richer sweep of American life and culture. Over 300 years, the objects made here have provided evidence of how separate ethnic traditions have evolved into a distinctly American style. If you have visited Conner Prairie, you know that we present this evolution through costumed interpreters and period settings.

Perhaps I should have left a sign in the Met that read: "Please note: This is only part of the American story. For a more complete picture, please visit"

I hope you will also visit and participate in our programs to get a sense of how America grew and changed through the years.

Posted: 12/17/2009 3:05:10 PM by Ellen Rosenthal | with 0 comments

It can be hard to find historical topics that capture the interest of audiences today.

Our goal this year in introducing a series of talks followed by facilitated conversations, was to provide adults the chance to interact with history by sharing their own perspectives on how the topic relates to life today. It was an experiment. We weren’t sure if enough people in the community were interested.

From the perspective of engagement with the topic, the most successful talk by far was our fourth lecture. Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D., professor of biology at Butler University, spoke on the historical context for Darwin’s theories on American society. Even before the lecture, I received emails and letters of protest.

Writers argued that Conner Prairie should not sponsor such a presentation because the inhabitants of 1836 Prairietown would not have accepted Darwin’s theories. Others felt that it was inappropriate for Conner Prairie to touch on a subject as controversial as Darwin. At the lecture, a heated debate followed. Bloggers commented afterward on the ideas expressed and points rebutted.

In the end, each side vented their views with passion but without ill effect. A terrific result!

Of course, I don’t relish causing Conner Prairie supporters anguish. But I do enjoy opening a historical topic that still touches people today.

For our next lecture Marcus Rediker, author of the award winning book, “The Slave Ship,” will explore the lives and roles of everyone connected to the African slave trade. His research makes clear how easily people objectified and lost compassion for others when money was involved. The topic unfortunately remains very relevant today. I invite all to hear Marcus on Sunday, November 8 at 4pm at Conner Prairie and join in what I hope will be a lively discussion.

Posted: 11/4/2009 3:47:51 PM by Ellen Rosenthal | with 1 comments

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