Conner Prairie event celebrates past, looks to the future


About 100 supporters attended the Conner Prairie annual meeting April 17 to hear about the prior year’s accomplishments and the interactive museum’s plans for the future.

President and CEO Norman Burns said Conner Prairie is a unique and historic place, combining hands-on learning, nature and living history exhibits. 

“We are expanding the boundaries of our historical natural resources by exploring, celebrating and improving the human experience,” he said.

The keynote speaker for the breakfast meeting was John H. Falk, a researcher and author who developed a method to analyze the value of museum experiences. Falk said that kind of data is essential because lawmakers and other funding sources sometimes need to be convinced that museums are important. 

“You see, museums worldwide, particularly in the United States, they’re (seen as) really nice places, but not necessary places. And it was the pandemic that helped to emphasize it. We weren’t going to close hospitals, but we could close the museums,” Falk said. “So, what that said to me is that museums need to work a little harder on defining and establishing the value that they deliver.”

Value can be subjective, though, so Falk wanted to establish a way to make the value of museums more concrete. He started by defining how value would be measured, and that was in its lasting effect on museum visitors’ personal, intellectual, social and physical well-being. 

Falk conducted two studies in 2022, when he recruited museum visitors to take a survey a month after their trip to a museum. That survey determined the effect of the visit on the four aspects of well-being. The answers were assigned a numeric value, which was then converted to a monetary value. The average of all the responses showed that a single museum visit was worth about $916, Falk said. That’s not the market value, he stressed, but it’s the economic value of each visit. 

That amount then was multiplied by the number of visitors to determine a total value, which then was compared to the cost of the museum. Falk said the end result shows that the average museum provides a service worth more than 2,000 percent of what it costs to operate. 

“What we are doing is, we are supporting the basic needs of humans,” Falk said. “We have museums because they support the well-being of our personal, intellectual, social and physical needs. And we’re doing it in a cost-effective manner.”

Falk said the challenge is to take the information from the studies and use it to continue improving museum experiences for the public into the future. 

A short video following his presentation gave a rundown of the services Conner Prairie provided over the past year. It included art opportunities, interactive experiences, programs for children of all ages and backgrounds, the living history exhibit Prairietown, and the Spark!Lab interactive space developed through a Smithsonian Institution program.

Burns concluded the meeting with details about what’s planned for 2023. He noted that a new exhibit that partially opened in 2022 — “Promised Land as Proving Ground” — will open fully this summer. The exhibit tells the story of more than 1,000 years of African American history. 

“The final phase of this exhibit will allow visitors the opportunity to learn and interact with historic figures from Indiana’s past, as well as the creation of a new building that will allow the museum to explore contemporary African American stories and community,” the printed annual report states. 

Burns added that the museum is working on a new nature trail, and on plans for renovating and expanding the welcome center into a year-round destination. 

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