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Conner Prairie enters next generation of museum exhibits

Courtesy Prairie Interactive Park

FISHERS, Ind. — Conner Prairie Interactive History Park has introduced what it calls the next generation in museum exhibits designed to catch the attention of the “texting generation” with the June opening of “1863 Civil War Journey” (CWJ).

The $4.3 million exhibit, which is based on immersive, experiential learning, portrays the Civil War through the eyes of 16-year-old Attia Porter of Corydon, Ind., and centers on the state’s only skirmish during the war when Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan crossed the Ohio River and invaded Corydon.

Ellen Rosenthal, president of Conner Prairie, said the exhibit is based on several years of historical and visitor research to make the experience more engaging and educational and reflects a new mission “that emphasizes the museum’s role as a catalyst for curiosity rather than as a dispenser of information.”

She said the major obstacle to creating an immersive, open-ended experience for an institution accustomed to first-person representation was how to re-create a raid that involved 2,500 Confederate cavalry troops.

“The museum chose to use technology in order to re-create the terror and uncertainty that erupts when war arrives in one’s hometown,” she said.

“The experience that emerged after months of extensive research and testing combines real actors and the theatrical wizardry of video, holograph-like images, computer interactives and stagecraft within a setting that looks like the small town of Dupont, Ind., in 1863 — the year it was invaded by Morgan’s Raiders.”

Exhibit creator Bob Noll of Boston Productions said it is the most aggressive melding of technology with interpreters and authentic staging ever attempted at the museum level with holographic images, video, sound, live characters and period-specific sets and buildings working in concert. Every component of the exhibit is intended to seize and hold attention.

“CWJ” re-creates the small town of Dupont. Its structural elements include a replica of the steamboat commandeered by Confederate troops to ferry the Ohio River and invade southern Indiana, a general store, a large covered bridge, a burning ransacked building, railroad, a theater, an exhibit area and a schoolhouse.

Visitors take the role of military volunteers and are given enlistment papers. “Throughout the experience, this role will be reinforced,” said Rosenthal.