I have always enjoyed visiting museums and other cultural attractions. When entering a new museum you never know what will be experienced through touch, smell, taste, feel, or what emotional impact will be felt. I have some very fond childhood memories of various museums my family visited. A few experiences in particular stick out.
One of the first museum experiences that I remember was of the Newton County History Museum in Neosho, Missouri, where I grew up. The museum is in the old jail. I always felt the building was kind of creepy. It’s an 1870s Second Empire style building (picture the house in “The Addam’s Family” TV show). Inside was a complete hodgepodge of relics and artifacts from the area. As you got to the top of the stairs to the second story, there was something that has remained with me since that first-grade visit: a Victorian-era child’s coffin. I think that was the first time that I realized that children could actually die, and also that child mortality was something people in the 1800s had to face. Let me tell you, coming face to face with that coffin made an impact.
Thankfully, most of my other museum experiences have not been that traumatic. In fact, my family spent a good deal of the summer of 1980 in Denver, Colorado, while my Grandma was in the hospital undergoing cancer treatments.
My dad and I would visit with her part of the day and then take some diversionary side trips to various museums or the zoo. These trips were a good break from the reality of the hospital and also a wonderful bonding time. The natural history museum to me was particularly fascinating. Seeing dioramas of ice-age animals, fossils of dinosaurs, and other natural curiosities on display brought into perspective in a way nothing else can, the dimension and depth of my childhood imagination.
The Ralph Foster Museum at the School of the Ozarks was perhaps my favorite childhood museum. It really is an eclectic collection of stuff. Everything from a preserved two-headed calf and antique Colt and Winchester firearms from the cowboy era to, best of all, the old jalopy truck from “The Beverly Hillbillies” TV show. That’s right, even down to Granny’s rocking chair. Now how cool is that!
Museums provide not only a connection to the past through artifacts, such as the child’s coffin, but more tangible connections. At the Henry Ford Museum, I actually became the operator of a 1917 turret lathe and I was able to make a brass candlestick to take home (and still have it, by the way)! It was wonderful to get to operate this machine and have the experience in being able to make something with my own hands.
The memory of being able to operate the turret lathe and make something with it to take home has inspired me to want to create experiences where our guests at Conner Prairie can not only get a more in-depth glimpse of a craft or trade but also to create a memento of their visit. In addition to our very popular candle making and basket making activities, we have been experimenting with other “drop-in” type classes and activities.
So far this year, we have made pinch pots and coil pottery at the Barker Brothers shop, made footstools at the McClure Carpenter shop, knitted, taught folks about flint and steel firestarting, and allowed guests to participate in casting pewter to make an early 19th-century trade pendant. These activities are designed to allow a little deeper participation and exploration of these crafts and trades. It is also rewarding to see how well these work as bonding time between parent and child as they work together to craft a memento as well as a memory. Watch for more of these types of activities throughout the season. If you have any feedback or ideas on this, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
. I would love to hear from you.
I think one of the strong points of Conner Prairie as an interactive history park is the variety of ways that our guests can experience the past. From becoming emotionally immersed in Morgan’s Raid in 1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana
, being able to feel your muscles burn a bit as you pump water at the Gregory well in 1836 Prairietown
, or being able to experience what it is like to fire an 1863 Springfield rifle as part of our BANG! program. These and other activities immerse our guests into Indiana history. Come experience this for yourself, and hey, make a basket while you’re here!