Debacle at Conner Prairie 

Not a smart way to run a museum

Not a smart way to run a museum
Recent reports that Conner Prairie, the living history museum in Fishers, would be closing many of its attractions during the winter months due to “belt tightening” is the kind of news that’s easy to overlook. As Doug Bennett, the president of Earlham College, who installed himself as chief of Conner Prairie last summer after summarily firing 27 of the museum’s board members and its chief administrator, John Herbst, reassuringly told The Indianapolis Star, there were only about a dozen people a day attending these programs. “That isn’t a very smart way to run the museum,” he said. Not a very smart way to run a museum. The funny thing is, though, that before Doug Bennett made himself the boss, Conner Prairie was considered one of this country’s museum success stories. It was, in fact, known for being a smartly run institution. At a time when other, similar museums — like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich. — were experiencing waning attendance, Conner Prairie enjoyed a growth spurt. CP added new attractions, like an 1816 Lenape Indian camp and a working 1886-style farm. It also provided an invaluable platform for scholarship in public history — the study and practice of how we share stories and pass history along from one generation to another. Museums like Conner Prairie exist in a highly competitive environment. They fight for people’s leisure time with amusement parks and malls, professional sporting events and Hollywood. Faced with this kind of pressure, it’s tempting for them to wander from their cultural missions and become entertainment centers. John Herbst, who was hired to be CP’s president in 1998, showed people here and throughout the country what a smart way to run a museum looks like. He developed fresh and exciting attractions that actually enhanced the institution’s educational value. This came with a price tag. In 2003, CP’s budget is $9.6 million. As of this past June, according to Doug Bennett, it was carrying about $4.5 million in debt. That may sound like a lot of money, but it needs to be understood within the context of the recent investment CP made in new attractions — and the increased attendance those attractions inspired. But that debt is what prompted Bennett to fire John Herbst and 27 CP board members, including Jack Bailey, a vice president of Eli Lilly Co.; Barry Hudson, chairman of the First National Bank in Portland; Stan Hurt, chairman of the Indiana Supply Corp.; John Quinn of Pricewaterhouse Coopers; and J. Christopher Cooke, vice president of Prudential Securities in Indianapolis. Bennett was able to do this because, from its inception, Conner Prairie has been a kind of subsidiary of Earlham College. In 1964, Eli Lilly made CP possible with a gift of land, followed, in 1973, by a stock bequest that he entrusted to Landrum Bolling, a good friend and Earlham’s president at that time. The bequest was to be split between the museum and the college. Lilly provided additional monies to the museum and, in the 1990s, Conner Prairie became a separate nonprofit corporation. But Earlham retained veto power over budgetary issues as well as hiring and firing. For several years, the Conner Prairie board tried to persuade Earlham to grant it independence. One reason for this was their contention that Earlham was withholding money that was rightfully Conner Prairie’s — money that could be used to pay down its debt. Interestingly, Earlham offered CP independence — but only if the museum dropped its claim to the money it said was its due. When the CP board rejected this “offer,” Bennett walked into a meeting that was supposed to be a negotiation and fired everyone in the room not appointed by Earlham. From that moment to this, Conner Prairie has looked less like a nationally recognized Midwestern living history museum and more like a banana republic. Since overthrowing Herbst and the CP board, Bennett and Co. have managed to alienate the Conner Prairie Alliance (a volunteer group that raises $100,000 a year for the museum and contributes about 15,000 hours of annual volunteer time), lost an estimated $250,000 in canceled sponsorships and contributions and prompted an investigation by the state attorney general into misallocation of trust funds. Although none of this can be said to compromise the quality of offerings at Conner Prairie — yet — it raises big questions about the motives and accountability of Doug Bennett and his Earlham team. In the first place, if Bennett and Co. found the debts that the museum accumulated through its recent expansion programs so unsettling, why didn’t they use their veto power from one year to the next to keep spending in check? In firing Herbst and 27 board members, Bennett chose a course of action that can be called bizarre and hurtful to CP’s professional reputation. The Midwestern sense of place can sometimes seem elusive, hard to pin down. But at Conner Prairie, John Herbst and his colleagues found that sense of place and made it available to everyone on a year-round basis. They were applauded for this by the public and their peers. But for Earlham College, that wasn’t a very smart way to run a museum.

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David Hoppe

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