From the News column of the January 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

History Museum Receives National Medal for Museum and Library Service

Debbie Ann Doyle, January 2011

Connor Prairie History ParkThe Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has selected a history museum, the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, as one of five museums to receive the 2010 National Medal for Museum and Library Service. The National Medal is the nation’s highest honor for museums and libraries for extraordinary civic, educational, economic, environmental, and social contributions. Recipients must demonstrate innovative approaches to public service and community outreach.

Conner Prairie, an outdoor history museum located in Fishers, Indiana, is the second living history museum to receive this honor. The award recognizes the museum for establishing itself as a community gathering place, where history can be celebrated and explored in a safe and welcoming environment, as the prize citation noted.

The prize citation also recognized the museum for its innovative training program for frontline staff, the Opening Doors Visitor Engagement Initiative. At a time when living history museums nationwide were facing declining attendance, Conner Prairie revamped its training to encourage interpreters to engage visitors in active learning. Surveys done by the museum show the program increases visitor learning and satisfaction, as Ken Bubp and Dave Allison reported in their spring 2007 AASLH History News article, “Opening Doors to Great Guest Experiences.” This successful approach to training frontline staff is being replicated by museums across the country, and received an international prize for the best guest services training approach from the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

The museum’s programs are designed to engage visitors of all ages and backgrounds in an imaginative encounter with the past. The museum’s primary focus is on local history through themed areas focused on Indiana’s Native American history, life in an 1836 Indiana village, and life at the Conner homestead, built by fur trader, land owner, and Indiana politician, William Conner. The museum interprets slavery through the innovative “Follow the North Star” program, which uses role playing to encourage visitors to think about the circumstances that shaped the actions of fugitive slaves fleeing captivity. Conner Prairie will open a new exhibit on Indiana in the Civil War in summer 2011.

“This year’s National Medal winners are serving their communities with innovative and creative new approaches to lifelong learning, commitment to addressing diverse community needs, plain old hard work, and a lot of heart,” said IMLS Acting Director Marsha L. Semmel. Awardees will receive the National Medal at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., and a $10,000 award. StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization that records, preserves, and shares oral history, will visit each institution to document personal stories about what the museums mean to their community.

The other museums that will receive the IMLS medal are: Explora, in Albuquerque, New Mexico; the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles; the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, Mississippi; and the New York Botanical Garden in New York City. Conner Prairie is the only one that is entirely focused on history. The IMLS medal was awarded to five libraries as well.

IMLS is the primary source of federal funding for museums and libraries. The National Medal for Museum and Library Service was created to highlight the vital role these institutions play in American society. Recipients are selected by the director of IMLS following an open nomination process and based on the recommendations of the National Museum and Library Services Board.

Debbie Ann Doyle is the AHA’s public history coordinator.