Conner Prairie’s new interactive exhibit aims to shine light on the Black experience in America.
“Promised Land as Proving Ground” is a newly designed exhibit focusing on the history of African Americans from precolonial Africa to the present-day Indiana set to open at Conner Prairie March 26, 2024. The exhibit will explore the history and culture of African Americans through the lens of spirituality, family, food and fellowship in an interactive audio/visual and augmented reality experience, said Conner Prairie CEO Norman Burns.
“‘Promised Land as Proving Ground’ is a way for us to tell the whole story of African American life,” Burns said. “This exhibit is a way for us to break down a lot of those barriers that are put out by the tip of interpretation so people can better understand.”
When it opens next spring, “Promised Land as Proving Ground” will be drastically different than anything Conner Prairie has done before, and Burns said moving away from the first-person narrative of storytelling for the African American experience — including its Award Winning “Follow the North Star” program that allowed participants to reenact and escape from slavery — is essential in order to retell history comprehensively and in its full context.
“We know that it is our job, our mission to inspire curiosity and foster learning and do that by providing engaging, individualized experiences,” Burns said. “When we put everyone at our mission, we were saying we’re going to try to tell inclusive stories, holistic stories. We’re not going to continue to do history that we’ve done, we just want to tell it more holistically, more comprehensively, and once again, inclusively in the things that we’re doing.”
Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher, who is the Curatorial Director of “Promised Land as Proving Grounds,” said the exhibit arose from a grant by Lilly Endowment in 2018, which would allow Conner Prairie to expand on Black spirituality. Originally, the exhibit was meant to be a standalone feature on the nineteenth century African Methodist Episcopal Church; however, Fletcher said she felt a broader reflection of Black spirituality would better represent the diverse experiences of African Americans in Indiana.
“It cinches on the fact that Black spirituality is rather diverse,” Fletcher said. “We’re not monolithic people, so we don’t have monolithic experiences.”
Fletcher and her team researched the lives of five Black Indiana residents from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including a blacksmith, Civil War nurse, midwife and schoolteacher, to accurately inform the exhibit. “Promised Land as Proving Grounds” will be located in three cabins throughout Prairie Town, with a garden of culturally significant produce managed by Green Thumb Garden Patrol, Ossabaw hogs and an artist in residence.
Each cabin will tell a different part of history — Origins, Resistance and Reclamation — using audio and visual storytelling as well as augmented reality, Burns said. Introducing augmented reality to a living museum like Conner Prairie allows for a more comprehensive and complex layer of storytelling, Burns said. As long as guests have access to a device, they can interact with characters or change scenery right where they are standing.
“We’re exploring a lot of ways of how that can be used to overlay accurate and more comprehensive history instead of putting signs or more people,” Burns said. “Another reason for augmented reality for this particular exhibit [is] we understand that this is a difficult, difficult story, and it’s not easy for our friends and colleagues on staff, for people of color to tell these difficult stories.”
Conner Prairie worked closely with Jessica Dunn and Justin Shimp of Indy-based animation studio Braintwins for the illustrated videos in each cabin, which are narrated by Dr. Maria Abegunde, assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora studies at IU Bloomington, Natoya Woodruff (Chef Oya) and Charlie Asante-Doyle of Asante Art Institute.
Fletcher said she placed an emphasis on working with the community for many aspects of the exhibit, including hand-picking the narrators of each of the videos and partnering with community leaders and organizations, such as Anthony “Baba Tony” Artis, Center for Africana Studies & Culture at IUPUI, Living Word Baptist Church, Indianapolis Garden Club, Purdue Extension Master Gardeners, Spirit and Place, and Witherspoon Presbyterian Church.
As a social historian, Burns said he just wants people to be able to understand the complexity of history as told by real people. The exhibit might be difficult for some people to engage with, but he said he hopes they have done it in a way that will open people’s hearts and minds to how to tell these stories about people and be a place where everyone can see themselves.
“I don’t think Indiana is ready, but I don’t think Indiana has a choice,” Fletcher said. “Just because you don’t like the reality of what happened, doesn’t change the fact that it happened, and it doesn’t change the impact that it has today.”
Burns said it is always the right time to tell accurate and inclusive history. He said he recognizes being human is difficult — people create wonderful things but also create hard and difficult things that are not always easy to explain or understand. As a living history museum, it is Conner Prairie’s job to make that possible.
“Promised Land as Proving Ground” is set to open March 26, 2023. For more information, visit connerprairie.org.
Contact staff writer Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.