The ability to travel through time is a recurring human fantasy. What would it be like to step through the mist of history and find yourself standing, say, in a corner grocery in Terre Haute, circa 1945?
This kind of question has always fascinated John Herbst, president of the Indiana Historical Society. It prompted him, at one time, to come to Indiana to take charge of Conner Prairie, one of the country's top living history museums.
And, now that Herbst is in charge of the IHS's Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center, it has prompted him to help create The Indiana Experience, a multi-media, live-action set of interactive experiences aimed at reinvigorating the IHS's bountiful archival collections of historic photographs and other Indiana-related materials. The Indiana Experience opened to the public on March 20.
"History can really engage your imagination," says Herbst, "and the potential of that is as open as the creative process itself."
Creating the various elements included in The Indiana Experience prompted an extensive renovation to the ten year-old Indiana History Center building. "After living here for ten years," says Herbst, "we felt that the building could do more to further our mission to tell Indiana's stories."
But it's not just the stories themselves that are on offer at the History Center, it's the ways The Indiana Experience tells them that represent a significant leap in how the past is experienced and understood.
The Indiana Experience consists of four components. In "You Are There," visitors see a life-size historic photograph projected on mist. They then step through the mist and find themselves standing in a painstaking recreation of the scene, complete with actors who serve as trained first-person interpreters. There are three "You Are There" environments: the Citizens Market, that 1945 Terre Haute grocery store; a 1924 Hartford City auto repair shop, complete with vintage vehicles; and the Conrath Violin Shop, located on Virginia Ave. in Indianapolis, circa 1914.
"Destination Indiana" connects the IHS's enormous collection of archival photographs with digital technology, touch screens and immersive displays to create a variety of journeys in each of the state's 92 counties as well as through 45 "Indiana Stories" on such subjects as African-American Hoosiers, the Civil War and the Ohio River.
The Fortune History Lab provides visitors with a chance to learn about and participate in conservation and preservation activities.
And the Cole Porter Room is a multi-media space that recreates the bar in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel where the songwriter enjoyed hanging out with friends and fans.
Herbst says that the impetus for creating The Indiana Experience was to bring the IHS's collections to the public in a more exciting way. Herbst believes that wedding history with 21st century storytelling technologies and techniques can re-engage people with a fuller sense of their history. He sees two, seemingly contradictory, trends in the ways people currently relate to the past.
"One is a kind of disengagement in terms of national memory, the public memory of what went on before. But we also observe an opposite phenomenon – that people are constantly making and valuing their personal connections to history. Look at these new television shows, where they're looking at celebrities or other people going back to find out who they really are. If you talk to people personally about their own connections to the past, they tend to value whatever they know and seek a deeper connection."
History captures imaginations
Herbst thinks that part of what turns some people off to history can be attributed to its treatment in educational systems. "History has been badly taught, in my view. There is a whole lineage of bad social studies teaching that is particularly connected to schools not hiring the best history teachers they can find, but often hiring people to coach sports. And so the emphasis is on hiring coaches who can incidentally teach social studies and history. There's been a tradition of that in many, many school districts."
History, for Herbst, uses facts to capture peoples' imaginations. "What we're finding with our "You Are There" visitor experience is that, as we choose these photographs and then research the stories, the photograph is often not what it appears to be on the surface. And when you get into those details and place people in that environment, you see life was a lot more complicated, more rich, more interesting. Just like our lives now are complicated, rich and interesting. The past is really no different."
To keep things fresh, the HIS team will be adding a new "You Are There" experience every nine months or so, and phasing one out. Herbst says they are now working on a dozen scenes – enough to take them through the next four years. "It's a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun to do and the staff has been having a ball finding exactly whatever's in the photographs. The great thing about our environment as opposed to a museum environment is we're bringing these things in for people to use and interact with; it's not a hands-off situation. The environments are meant to be lived in by our visitors."
Herbst is especially drawn to the "Destination Indiana" interactive media displays. "You can choose any topic, or place you want to journey back to. You follow your own interests and then you literally zoom in on the details you would like to know more about."
Historical societies around the country are taking notice of "You Are There" and "Destination Indiana." "These are two concepts that originated here in our brainstorming about how to take our collections and bring them to the public," says Herbst. "We're going to be very much copied in this regard, I believe."
In developing the Indiana Experience components, Herbst stresses that the IHS is committed to providing attractions that do not duplicate experiences already offered by Conner Prairie or the Indiana State Museum.
"It's my strong feeling that people like us, who are engaged in creative work, we want the chance to do our very best," says Herbst. "That's the cry of any artist: Give me a chance to show you my very best. We've been thrilled that Indiana and our community here have been willing to support us in doing what we think is our best work."
The Indiana Experience
At the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center
450 W. Ohio St.
Tuesday-Saturday: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission: Adults $7; $6.50 Seniors; $5 Children 5-17; IHS members free