Tag Archives: Conner Prairie Interactive History Park

The limits of recovered experiences

A reader left a comment to my last post about Conner Prairie’s new Civil War exhibit, but she posted it on the “About the Blog” page.  It’s a good comment that deserves a serious response, so I’m going to re-post it here.

She says: “Your review takes very strong positions of the Civil War at Conner PRairie [sic] and completely withholds any observations about the validity of the history, the educational merits or the quality of the visitor experience. Have you visited conner prairie, Michael?”

I haven’t been to Conner Prairie, but I hope to someday.  It’s one of the more important public history sites in the country and pioneered the use of living history for educational purposes.  My criticism is not aimed at Conner Prairie in general, but rather at some specific techniques used in the new Morgan’s Raid exhibit.

First of all, let me address my (admittedly quite snarky) remarks about the children’s play area.  I think it’s a misfire.  I don’t see any educational benefit in letting kids shoot water cannons, splash around in a pool, or climb around on a structure that bears a passing resemblance to a riverboat.  Kids learn by doing, it’s true—but not all “doing” entails learning.

She’s correct that I didn’t say very much about the historical content or educational utility of the exhibit itself.  The reason I didn’t is because Conner Prairie’s publicity material didn’t really emphasize the content.  Instead, the emphasis is on the visceral experience visitors are meant to have.  The press release I quoted in my post promises that guests “will feel they have lived through a piece of the war and that they had to make the same choices about what to support and who to believe that Hoosiers had to make 150 years ago.”

Historic sites and museums seem to be hitting us in the heart and in the gut these days.  Exhibit planners and site administrators want us to experience what Civil War combat was like, or understand the difficult decisions runaway slaves faced, or sympathize with Abraham Lincoln, or whatever.  Increasingly, public historians are trying to put visitors in historical figures’ shoes.  I think they’re not as successful at this as they’re telling themselves and their audience.

Sure, we can experience some of the outward aspects of life in the past.  That’s one of the things that places like Conner Prairie can do that you can’t do with any other educational medium.  We can get a taste of some common household chore or feel the heft of a knapsack.  We can even sample the sights and sounds of a battle, and see how formations of soldiers moved and fought.

But no matter how much money we spend, no matter how effective our sound systems or how advanced our special effects, we simply can’t recreate the inner experiences of long-dead people.  Being an Indiana civilian caught in the middle of an attack by Confederate raiders involved much more than sounds, smoke, and costumes. There was terror, pain, and uncertainty—all the emotions that one would have if armed men tore into one’s community dealing death and destruction.  That’s a check that no public historian can cash.

Even if we could find a way to make visitors fear for their lives (and wouldn’t that be a hoot?), they’d still process those emotions and thoughts as citizens of the twenty-first century.  One of my historical maxims is that people of the past didn’t just do things differently; they were different.  Their worldviews were the products of accumulated experiences and beliefs that were fundamentally different from ours.  Here’s an example from two very different books.  One of my college professors, Dr. Earl Hess, wrote a very fine study about Union soldiers in combat.  He noted that many of these troops compared fighting to hard, arduous work.  This made sense, because a lot of them shared some background in agricultural labor.  It was a way to get their heads around the experience of battle and explain it to others.  In Black Hawk Down, by contrast, Mark Bowden notes that American soldiers who found themselves caught up in a deadly firefight in Somalia in 1993 compared their experience of combat to modern war films.  While dodging bullets, they thought to themselves something along the lines of, “I’m in a movie!”  Both groups processed the singular experience of combat in ways that mirrored their lifestyles and worldviews, but those lifestyles and worldviews were grounded in different eras.

This is not to say that I think teaching about the emotions and experiences of the past has no place in public history.  It most certainly does.  But both the public historian and the visitor must remember that while we can and should learn about those experiences, we can’t have them.  And we probably wouldn’t want to.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites

Experience war. And bring your rubber swim pants.

Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Indiana opened the lengthily-titled “1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana” this month.  I’d always thought Conner Prairie was your basic outdoor living history museum, sort of along the lines of Colonial Williamsburg, but apparently at some point it mutated into an “interactive history park” and it’s got the title to prove it.

“1863 Civil War Journey” educates visitors about John Hunt Morgan’s raids onto Union soil and allows them to experience the war firsthand.  Conner Prairie seems to have embraced the Disneyesque approach to public history employed so controversially at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and taken the next logical steps.  Here’s how the illustrious New York Times tried to explain it:

The drama is staged in buildings meant to represent the town of Dupont, Ind. During the Civil War Dupont was attacked by thousands of Confederates led by John Hunt Morgan; they had been riding on horseback through Indiana, plundering and pillaging, wrecking rail lines and cutting telegraph wires.“Morgan’s Raids” are the only Civil War battles that took place in Indiana.

Now they are taking place here. We are in a historical village of sorts, whose broad-timbered barns are authentic, but whose other buildings were constructed for previous interactive exhibitions. They are inhabited by costumed interpreters who treat visitors like recruits preparing to battle Morgan’s marauders. We can see the effect of earlier attacks, including a smoldering ruin and the burned facade of the train depot.

Such historical “sets” exist elsewhere in the park too, including an 1836 village,Prairietown, and a Lenape Indian Camp. They require a strenuous suspension of skepticism, along with a readiness to welcome the conversation of gruff blacksmiths pumping on bellows before they hammer out authentic 19th-century-style nails.

But Conner Prairie, at least in the Civil War “journey,” turns the notion of a historical village inside out. First it tries to create a continuous narrative through which visitors are led; then it rips aside the historical mask with contemporary special effects. We stand in Mayfield and Nichols Dry Goods Store as it comes under attack, for example, and we realize that aside from posters advertising vintage Roback’s Stomach Bitters, the room is also stocked with sub-woofers and flat-screen video monitors through which we experience the attack and the plunder. Nearby, in a cozy home left in some disarray by bivouacked soldiers, 3-D video projections bring us accounts of a young black man who was imprisoned by the raiders and then escaped. There are touch-screen monitors in one room, offering simple video games that challenge you to stop the raiders. At the climax, you are led into a multimedia presentation about Morgan’s raids and his ultimate defeat, including flashes of footage showing the militia gathering to defend the town — which playfully turns out to be the audience marching into the theater.

Sounds pretty intense, and apparently it is.  From the website’s FAQ section:

Is the experience suitable for young children?

The experience has something for every age and interest from the self-led journey about Morgan’s Raid on Indiana to a family play area designed for children ages 2 to 10, including an indoor climbing area and outdoor water play area.

However, in select areas, 1863 Civil War Journey utilizes strobe lights, loud noises and images of war that may not be suitable for young children.

You can see the “outdoor water play area” in this video clip.  It’s supposed to be patterned after the Alice Dean, a side-wheel steamboat built in 1863 that Morgan and his men captured and burned.  Personally, I think it resembles a partial set for a high school theatrical production with a jumbo kiddie pool stuck to the back.


The play area includes water cannons, which is of course appropriate because (a) the Civil War had cannons and (b) boats generally involve water.

Conner Prairie’s press release promises that visitors “will feel they have lived through a piece of the war and that they had to make the same choices about what to support and who to believe that Hoosiers had to make 150 years ago.”  They’ll have to make choices about proper attire and gastrointestinal health, too:

What should children wear in the water play area?

Swimwear is not acceptable in the water play area; guests may bring additional dry clothing and towels as needed. Family restrooms are available in the River Crossing Play Area. Children who are not toilet-trained are required to wear a swim diaper covered by rubber pants with tight-fitting elastic at the waist and legs. Any child who has had diarrhea within the last 2 weeks is not permitted to enter the water play area.

When you have to start worrying about strobe lights and diarrhea, maybe your history exhibit has gotten a wee bit too interactive.

The Times article was listed as a “theme park review,” by the way.  I’m not sure if that’s the label Conner Prairie was shooting for, but it looks like now they’re stuck with it.


Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites