It took me a long time to get behind the idea of a Civil War exhibit for Conner Prairie. But after over a year of work – now that the 1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana
will open to public in June 2011– I can say that it’s one of the best, most impactful and innovative projects that I’ve ever worked on – and I’ve worked on some amazing projects in my 30 years in the museum field.
Let me explain how the Civil War exhibit came about. In 2006 and 2007, a committee of the board, staff and community representatives laid out a strategy for Conner Prairie’s future and we hit on the idea of adapting the 1886 Liberty Corner area to introduce different time periods. We could repurpose structures and redeploy current staff, making the project both affordable and sustainable. We then tested several time periods with focus groups and there was no contest: the Civil War won by a landslide. But I worried about it. At first I couldn’t see how we could create a uniquely Conner Prairie experience: immersive, exciting, authentic, and meaningful.
After much discussion with external and internal stakeholders, we decided that we should narrow our exhibit focus to the most important event that occurred on Indiana soil: the extraordinary account of Morgan’s Raid. Why extraordinary? Because in 1863 rogue Confederate General John Hunt Morgan mustered 2500 trained cavalry troops and decided that Indiana could be taken by force. He might have succeeded if 40,000 everyday citizens had not volunteered to defend the state and drove Morgan into Ohio where he was captured. While the story was great, we still had major challenges. Could we make visitors feel like they were part of the exciting experience? Could we recreate Morgan’s raid repeatedly? And, could we make it interesting to the entire family not just the military history buffs.
I’m happy to say that we succeeded. The experience will feature actual Hoosiers and Confederates who lived through Morgan’s Raid. It will incorporate our legendary first person interpretation with some incredible theatrical wizardry woven in and throughout the structures. Visitors will take on the roles of the Indiana volunteer militia, the 40,000 who responded to the Governor’s call to step forward. Giving the visitors roles will allow us to pose choices: are you brave enough to fight for your state and to support President Lincoln, or do you believe in states rights like the Confederates? And, as the story takes place on the home front, it allows us to introduce visitors to real women, children, and men who never expected the war – which had been so far away – to drop into their daily lives.
We have been able to design the 1863 Civil War Journey so that entire families can share the dramatic experience. The exhibit will engage different ages at their own levels and stimulate discussion about timeless concerns such as freedom, patriotism, slavery and race.
For more than a decade, Conner Prairie has been re-shaping its relationship with its visitors as it transforms to remain relevant. The 1863 Civil War Journey is another crucial step in that transformation.