It was 25 years ago this month (most likely April 3, to be exact),
that I started working at what was then known as Conner Prairie
Living History Museum (CP) in my home state of Indiana.
Readers may recall that I’ve written previously about my
many adventures while employed at Conner Prairie. It was
the birthplace of my passion for historic cooking. Even now,
I acknowledge that fact and am deeply grateful for the solid
foundation, both in general history and in historic foodways,
that was established there. Overall, my experience at Conner
Prairie was wonderful, and my years serving as an Interpreter
were some of the happiest, most glorious, of my life.
One of my stints as a cover girl while at CP!
However, sadly all is not well back there on the Prairie. At least,
in my view. The past that I knew, that I happily “lived,” shared
with, and interpreted for, thousands upon thousands of visitors
on a daily basis, is, sadly, no more. I say this based on what
I personally have seen and heard, as well as on what I’ve been
told by current employees and by fellow CP alums. The museum’s
emphasis now seems to be more on having a good time, rather
than on learning about the past. What daily transpires is more
“let’s have fun via interactive activities” and less “here’s how
inhabitants of this area and during this time (that’d be the year
1836, in central Indiana) lived, worked, and played.” In fact,
the institution’s very name has been changed to reflect this
new direction. No longer called a living history museum, it’s
now some type of fun-land, namely “Conner Prairie Interactive
Historic Park.” Even the site’s current slogan has veered
away from any semblance of history, living or otherwise,
with its bold proclamation of “Acres and Acres of Interactive
Awesomeness.” ugh. There’s a heavy sense of dread in my
very heart and soul. It feels as if a dear friend from long
ago has passed.
This new angle on daily operations at CP really hit home this
past summer when I was told of a blog written by a Danish
fellow* who was traveling around the United States with his
family, visiting different historical museums. One of his goals
was to determine which institutions offered the best interactive
experiences (yes, apparently that’s a vital criteria nowadays!).
The family went to several sites, including the Frontier Culture
Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Henry Ford Museum.
Second on their itinerary was my once-beloved Conner Prairie.
I was eager to read what they thought.
Then, I saw this blog photo:
My heart sank. Seriously?!? I was simply dumbfounded…shocked…
dismayed…disappointed. Even angered. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Why? Because below is the scene that used to greet visitors when
they walked into the kitchen of this same house:
You saw a person (usually female, and in this particular case me,
but it could’ve been someone else portraying the same, or a similar,
character) DOING various kitchen-appropriate (wow, it’s a separate
room!) activities. She might be preparing a meal and cooking all or
parts of it on the cast iron cook-stove (oh, my! it’s the ONLY one
in town!) or “dressing” the good-sized table in the adjacent dining
room (again, wow, it’s separate!) with a cloth, napkins, plates,
and other assorted accoutrements or even beginning the process
of serving the folks seated therein. Or, if the meal had ended,
she might be clearing the table and washing-up all the dishes and
pots ‘n pans and putting them away in their proper spots. Naturally,
during all this, I would’ve, er, I mean, she would’ve explained each
step. Perhaps she’d start with the cook-stove, and how difficult it is
to keep it huffin’ ‘n puffin’ all day long and the challenges she faced
learning to cook on it, since, as with most females in this or any town,
she only knows how to cook on the open hearth. Then there’s
the incessant struggle to maintain a supply of stove firewood,
and the constant reminders she has to give the Doctor’s young
apprentice (or perhaps that fellow whose Contract for the Poor
Dr. Campbell holds) to chop it and fill the wood box. And then
all the times such help is non-existent, like the other day when
the Doctor and his assistant were out tending to patients, and
so she had to handle it herself. Of course, hopefully the gal
visitors encountered in this kitchen would talk non-stop (well,
I certainly did!) about the whys and wherefores of all that she
Me, not at the Doctor’s grand house, but at the potters’ plain ‘n rugged
one-room cabin at the edge of town, down toward the river:
was doing. Whether it was the sources of the foods that were
prepared (patients, as payment for the Doctor’s services) or
the reason for the separate rooms in the Campbell house just
for cooking, eating, and even sleeping (there were FIVE rooms!
most houses in town only had one or two) or what she really
thought of that handsome new schoolmaster, I’d, er, sorry,
I mean she, would gladly tell all. Then she’d likely yammer on
about herself and her family, her sister and two brothers, how
long she’d been the Campbell’s “hired girl,” what her duties
and chores are, and perhaps whether or not the Doctor is
a good and kind employer and how special her relationship
is with his wife, who’s teaching her about all the finer things
in life. She’s well aware that she works long hours, but she’s
mighty grateful to be able to contribute to her whole family’s
living expenses (particularly since her father passed not long
ago). And so on and so forth, ’til the day comes to an end.
Of course, the beauty and the value of it all is that, once
visitors left this kitchen and house, they could then compare
what they saw here with what they’d seen, or were going
to see, in all the other houses throughout Prairietown.
The bottom line is, visitors would’ve been able to LEARN SO
MUCH about SO MANY things when they entered this kitchen
of Dr. Campbell’s house and chatted with the person they met
there. Through interaction with a real human being, the public
was informed, educated, and entertained. In short, it was fun!
But now, instead of an actual person showing and teaching
visitors by doing, explaining as she goes, and sharing oodles
of information, and answering your questions, both big and
small, and conducting a lively conversation, they get this:
Yep, a wall placard telling everyone how to “prepare and cook”
their own meal, complete with plastic food. What a deal!
So, I ask you, is this BETTER?!? I say no, but hey, that’s just
me and my opinion.
What’s interesting is that, apparently, Colonial Williamsburg has
now set its compass in the same direction. Some folks are all
for it, others are not. Personally, I have a problem with this
seemingly rampant “enh, it’s good enough” attitude. I mean,
come on! Showcasing the pirate Blackbird, who not only was
never in the town of Williamsburg, but was also killed in 1718,
long before the site’s primary time period?! And I was shocked
to read the new president’s comment, “The Blackbeard story
was fun, it was accurate-ish.” (emphasis mine)
Alas, maybe that’s what’s important nowadays. Fun. As opposed
to, say, acknowledging our historic past. And doing it accurately.
As opposed to “accurate-ish”-ly. Whatever. As far as I can tell,
it seems like it’s the ol’ Disney-fication effect, the one that
people feared was engulfing Conner Prairie years ago.
Of course, nothing’s more constant than change. The Conner
Prairie that I knew and visited when in grade school was vastly
different from what it had become by the time I was employed
as an Interpreter. For starters, back in those very early days,
it was called Conner Prairie Pioneer Settlement and Museum.
Then decades later, due to major shifts in the surrounding
population, even the site’s address changed, from Noblesville
to Fishers (which kinda made the reason for naming the onsite
eatery after Governor Noble rather nonsensical). Later on, when
working for the City of Indianapolis’ Parks Department, I attended
meetings at CP that were conducted in a renovated barn, before
the modern Visitor Center was built. And heck, I can remember
a time when the first-person village of Prairietown didn’t exist!
There have been other changes since my years at CP, many
of which seem inexplicable to me. Or maybe it’s just that
the site’s focus drifted more to offering what the public
expects, rather than on what’s historically correct. This,
from an institution that, at least when I was there, strived
for historical accuracy at all times and demanded the same
of its interpreters. In any event, there were things such as
the addition of a church (after all, every town had one, yes?
No! Not those in Indiana with a population under 200; besides,
not everyone was of the same religion, if any). Then the village
potters’ surname was changed from “Baker” to “Barker,” because,
you know, too many visitors were confused as to whether pots
or bread was baked in the kiln (despite the fact that the name
Baker was set when Prairietown was conceived, and it was
the actual name of an actual, real-life early 1800s Indiana
potter). Of course, I think the nail in the coffin was hammered
tight when the potters’ house was demolished (they now “live”
outside of town, just as most everyone else does) and their
shop moved up into town (makes for a nice little industrial
district, doesn’t it?!).
And don’t get me started on the $450 million Civil War exhibit!
(I might tell you what I really think! LOL oy) Whatever. I could
continue, but I won’t. Besides, it’s too painful! Nevertheless,
in the end, it seems that history is being, and has been, slowly
but surely, dumped by the wayside. ‘Cuz, you know, it’s allegedly
“not fun.” And that worries, even saddens, me.
In the end, I suppose the proof of any benefits, or lack thereof,
arising from all this mucking about will come decades from now,
when the general consensus is that citizens of the United States
are either more or less informed about the overall history of their
country, as well as that of their collective past, of themselves as
a people. I’m guessing it’ll be, perhaps, the latter, since it isn’t
particularly good now, but, again, that’s just me. It remains
to be seen.
In the meantime, I commemorate this 25th anniversary by bidding
a hearty farewell to a treasured past and moving forward with heaps
of fond memories. HUZZAH!
*NOTE: Naturally, the blog is in Danish.
To translate it, use Google Translate. You’ll get
a version that’s understandable, albeit not perfect.
Copy the URL of the blog post and paste it into
the box on the left side of the Google Translate
page. Make sure you’re translating from Danish
to English, using the “Detect Language” function
on the left of the page, above the box. The URL
of the translated page will pop up on the right.
Then click the blue “Translate” box (also on
the right), and the translated web page will
replace the “Translate” page. Hope that all
makes sense. Good luck!