At a time when museums are struggling to attract visitors and remain relevant in people’s lives, Connor Prairie Interactive History Park has skyrocketed to national attention. Authors Anne Bergeron and Beth Tuttle recently designated Conner Prairie as a “magnetic” museum in their book “Magnetic, The Art and Science of Engagement.” Based on three years of research, the book explores the “secret sauce” of how Conner Prairie and five other museums are succeeding in critical areas including attendance, membership, community, people, financial stability, and programming.
Curiosity-Driven Learning Ellen M. Rosenthal, Conner Prairie president and CEO, credits a shift in policy based on market and visitor research for turning things around. Driving this research was a desire to understand the needs of the community, and who was and wasn’t coming to the museum. In 2006 Conner Prairie implemented a new strategic plan based on its research:
- Create engaging, fun, and exciting exhibits
- Add new experiences every year, moving beyond their original 1836 focus
- Focus on families and children
While a focus on families and kids may seem obvious, Rosenthal disagreed. “For historians this is harder than you would think,” she said, “because they want to share history, and really, people and kids are interested in experiencing and being hands-on. We’ve [since] become masters at what we call immersive history, which is putting people in the experience.”
For example, Connor Prairie eliminated most of the breakable items that prevented people from being able to interact with an exhibit. Now they can lie down on the bed or sit on the chair. “It changes the entire approach about how you make the visitor feel like they’re part of the experience,” Rosenthal said.
This type of “curiosity-driven learning” also strives to make history a well-rounded experience by incorporating STEM learning (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) along with nature and the arts into activities whenever possible. All of theses changes were a hit with the public, causing a surge in attendance (322,710 visitors in 2012 alone.)
Community and National Leader But Conner Prairie didn’t stop there. Management knew that to make these changes long-term, they had to have their volunteers and employees on board. So they developed a new training DVD for their frontline staff, a customer-service approach that focuses on the visitors’ needs rather than on just delivering information. The training was so successful that the DVD is now being used by 1,500 other museums across the nation to train their employees.
Conner Prairie also realized the importance of being firmly entrenched in the community. “We provide a sense of place for Hamilton County,” Rosenthal said. Conner Prairie is the second largest tourist attraction in Hamilton County and the eleventh in the region. All of those visitors means that Conner Prairie has a big economic footprint, generating 28 million dollars a year in revenue for Indiana.
As for the future, Rosenthal knows that integrating technology into exhibits, as it has successfully done with its 1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana exhibit, will be key. It’s also exploring ways to connect with empty nesters while continuing to foster strong family ties.
Ultimately, Rosenthal sees the result of years of hard work paying off. “We had become just the fourth grade field trip,” she said. “We were stagnant; we weren’t thriving.” Those days are gone, replaced by a magnetic attraction between Conner Prairie and the visitors and community it serves.
“Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement” is available through the American Alliance of Museums Bookstore at http://www.aam-us.org/resources/bookstore, ISBN 978-1-933253-83-1, 6 x 9.5 in., 224 pages, color illustrated, soft cover, $34.95 retail.
For more information, call (317) 776-6006, visit www.connerprairie.org, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @ConnerPrairie.