Q&A: Retiring president, CEO Ellen Rosenthal

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Ellen Rosenthal has been president and CEO of Conner Prairie since 2003. She came to the museum in 1999, guided it through its quest for independence and changed its operation from a traditional outdoor living history museum to an interactive history park focused on providing hands-on, immersive experiences for all visitors.

Staff Report

As Ellen Rosenthal prepares for her last day at the helm of Conner Prairie, she takes time to answer some personal questions about her time as president and CEO. Her last day on the job is Jan. 4.

Q: What do you plan to do in retirement?
A: I wish I could say I was retiring to move to Bali to find inner peace. However I’m retiring to take care of my 92-year-old mother. I hope to also find time to pursue interests – the arts, books, writing, genealogy, exercising (I signed up for the mini-marathon) and travel to visit dear friends in Italy and England.

Q: What brought you to Conner Prairie and kept you here?
A: The stars aligned to bring me to Conner Prairie from Pittsburgh. I’ve always worked in history museums but never in a living history museum. I thought and still think living history is a magical and powerful way to present the past. Conner Prairie offered me a job and then IU Health offered my husband, an oncologist, a position. Indianapolis seemed to be a great place to live and raise children (we have three boys) so we moved 16 years ago.

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Q: What are three keys to your success?
A: I’m a mother of three boys and have first-hand insight into what makes museum visits wonderful experiences and great opportunities for families to bond and learn together. Additionally, I have a passion for listening to and understanding the perspectives and attitudes of both people who visit Conner Prairie and those who do not. I’ve visited many, many venues that serve families and children, including museums, science centers, theme parks (Universal Studios is my favorite) and even IKEA, and have a vast idea gallery of innovative ideas from which to draw. I’m usually not hampered by convention. I was determined to make Conner Prairie not just a fun place to visit but also an important part of the “educational ecosystem,” where children and families could explore many facets of history – science, the arts, agriculture and nature – to find and feed their curiosity. Research has shown that livelong interests are usually incubated outside the classroom.

Q: What is the No. 1 achievement that you’ve accomplished as president and CEO?
A: When I began at Conner Prairie, the historic grounds were usually rather empty, except for school children. Most people thought that one visit sufficed for a lifetime. Today, Conner Prairie is bustling nearly every day with children and adults and many members come once a week if not more often. They tell me that they always find something new to do and learn. Parents tell me that their children who visit with school groups want to come back. Everyone who visits seems to have a favorite part of the experience. Conner Prairie has become a vital part of community.

Q: What is your favorite experience at Conner Prairie?
A: I love flying in the balloon, looking down and imaging that I’m seeing Indiana as it looked in the 1800s. I’m hooked on the drama of the Civil War experience and how smoothly live drama and video projection work together. Create.Connect thrills me, where Indiana stories are the setting for experimenting with science. My favorite weekend thing to do is just to walk through the grounds to the bluff above the White River. The view is magnificent.

Q: If you lived in the early 1800s, what would be your favorite pastime, chore or job be?
A: I know too much about the role of women in the past to think it would be fun to live in the 1800s. If I were to play an interpreter, I would be Lucinda Barker, wife of the potter. Lucinda is a poor woman who has never had an education, as many women did not at that time. But she has a heart of gold and could survive the woods. She loves to gently challenge young girls who visit to explain why any girl would want to learn to read or go to school if they are just going to get married and tend to their babies.

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Q: What is your favorite item in the museum’s collection?
A: We have a hollow mid-section of a gum tree which was used for grain storage by settlers. It is about 5 feet high and 10 to 12 feet across – clearly a huge tree. Looking at it, I can imagine Indiana before settlement when it was covered with giant trees. I would have liked to see that.

Q: When the museum is closed, do you visit the exhibits or the grounds?
A: Conner Prairie is open all year now because we have two indoor exhibits, Discovery Station and Create.Connect. When the historic grounds are closed from November through March, staff is busy putting on programs such as Holiday Adventures, Conner Prairie by Candlelight and Hearthside Suppers and planning for the next outdoor season. I’ve always been busy with budgets, planning, fundraising and more. Personally, I like to walk or if there is snow, cross-country ski outdoors, through Prairietown, Civil Wary Journey and throughout the grounds.

Q: How do museum curators come up with new ideas for exhibitions and experiences?
A: Usually, lots of people contribute ideas for exhibits, including staff, board members, donors, teachers and others. The idea for Civil War Journey came from teachers who asked if we could do an exhibit about the Civil War that would get children as excited about learning about the Civil War as our Follow the North Star program does the Underground Railroad. The executive team considers what ideas fit our mission, audience, budget and talents. There are lots of questions to consider. Then we test ideas on the general public. The board gives final approval on exhibits.

Q: How did you fall into this line of work?
A: I grew up outside of New York and my parents took us to many, many museums. I grew up loving the museum environment, objects on display and what I could learn all on my own. I was fascinated by what objects can tell us about the people that made and used them. By 15, I knew I wanted to work in museums. After graduate school in American culture and museums, I fell in love with history museums because at the time, 25 years ago, most art museums were only interested in aesthetics and not in their visitors. I came to Conner Prairie as the vice president and became interim executive director in 2003 when the previous president and the entire board of trustees were terminated by Earlham College, Conner Prairie’s former trustee. When Conner Prairie became independent 10 years ago, I was named president.

Q: How many times have you gone up in the balloon?
A: I would guess that I’ve been up in the balloon 50 times. Especially when the wind is blowing a little, the balloon silently sways, reminding me of sailing, another favorite activity. I love looking down and imaging that I’m seeing Indiana as it looked in the 1800s.

Q: Have you ever made a gingerbread house for the exhibit or helped with one?
A: The president’s job is very, very time intensive, involving nights and weekends. I wish that I had had the time to make a gingerbread house. Conner Prairie’s exhibit smells wonderful and the creativity of participants astounds me.

Q: What’s in the works for the future at Conner Prairie that you’re excited about?
A: Next year, Conner Prairie unveils two legacy projects, which means exhibits endorsed by the Bicentennial Commission (full disclosure, I’m head of the endorsement committee). They are both fantastic. We are reintroducing the Conner House, our icon, and exploring its early years when this part of the world went from being Indian Territory to new European-American settlement in the course of five years. We’ll use many different tricks to allow visitors to understand how the landscape, culture and society changed and how one man, William Conner, went from fur trapper and trader to esteemed businessman. The second exhibit, Treetop Outpost, will take a historical look at the landscape and the natural materials Hoosiers have used in the past 200 years. It will include a four-story treehouse and five nature activity areas.

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Q: Can you share something about yourself that people don’t know about you or your leadership of Conner Prairie?
A: Joining Conner Prairie’s staff initially as vice president was a bit of an unusual career move for me. Not only was Conner Prairie an outdoor museum, but it was also focused on rural life with a strong agricultural component – all of which were outside the realm of my previous personal and professional experience. After growing up in the suburbs of New York, I left home at age 17 and lived in a total of nine big cities where I worked in more traditional museums – confined to four walls – versus the sprawling grounds of Conner Prairie.

But I’ve always been keen on challenges, and was eager to learn all I could about rural life in 1836 Indiana. But I have to admit that those first few months were a bit rocky, as I was a little out of my element to say the least! To give you a glimpse into what I experienced, let me tell you a brief story.

During my first week on the job, I was asked to take a film crew for a tour of the grounds. I picked up my two-way radio and hiked out with the crew to Prairietown. Much to my surprise, standing right in front of the Campbell House, was a very large cow-like creature. And this particular cow had very large horns – not the petite horns that I was used to seeing on Elsie the Cow, the friendly Borden’s Dairy icon. To me, the big horns I encountered meant only one thing – a bull. I only knew about bulls from watching video of bullfights in Spain and reading about angry bulls tossing intruders with their horns. Alarmed but undaunted, I flung out my arms to stop the firm crew from entering the danger zone and radioed for help as I called out, “Emergency! Bull loose in Prairietown!” As I kept the film crew at bay, a staff member arrived quickly to rescue us. Much to my astonishment, he walked casually up to the animal and looped a rope easily over its neck and began to lead an apparently docile animal away. I asked him how he could just calmly walk right up to a bull, especially one with such menacing horns. He tried to suppress a smile as he replied, “Ellen, it is not a bull, it’s a cow. You were focused on the wrong end.”

We both had a good laugh, and despite my early blunders, the Conner Prairie staff and leadership were remarkably patient with me and I was thrilled to be here from the moment I stepped foot on our scenic property. My first role as vice president was a perfect position for me then. I was raising three young boys as I walked the precarious line that many mothers walk between pushing ahead at work while still giving priority to your children. This is often referred to as the Mommy Track. As a vice president, I could influence progress at Conner Prairie during the day but I had my nights and weekends with my family. Women on the Mommy Track rarely push for greater responsibility when their children are young and once they’re are older, you are rarely given the opportunity to move beyond that track and lead.

I, however, jumped off the Mommy Track but not by my own choice. Rather, I was pushed off when Earlham College – the original parent organization of Conner Prairie – terminated then-CEO John Herbst and 27 volunteer board members and asked me to step in as interim president.

I can’t believe how lucky I was to lead this amazing museum in a fabulous community. Conner Prairie is a place where people care about learning and families. I will always treasure my time here.