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Summer Treasures: Conner Prairie

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We think a lot of our local museums, but noted not long ago we're in a particularly rich period when it comes to current exhibits — from the IMA's Thornton Dial exhibit to the Eiteljorg's Red/Black: Related Through History show to the Indiana History Center's You are There exhibit. Now, with the unveiling of the immersive Civil War experience at Conner Prairie, and the just-opened Treasures of the Earth exhibit at The Children's Museum, we're downright boggled by all the riches. We've broken these great choices into three features. In addition to this story, don't miss Summer Treasures: Children's Museum and Summer Treasures: Six museum must-sees


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1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana

It's July of 1863, and you've been summoned to the southeastern town of Dupont, Ind., where 2,400 Confederate troops are converging upon the town's modest population.

As you tepidly stroll along the dirt path toward your fellow militiamen, you're cynical and trying to find things out of place to poke fun at. But all around you is the best of rural Indiana — gently rolling fields, authentic 19th-century breeds of livestock, and a tree-lined landscape that completely isolates your senses from the outside world, allowing you to fully engage with a sense of place.

You warily approach the general store, where you're anxiously greeted by a grateful and troubled young woman. After thanking the small crowd of fellow Hoosiers for riding to her town's aid, she looks out to you and asks a humbling question: "What useful skills do you have?"

You painfully realize that your most practical skill sets — moderate proficiency with Microsoft Excel and a third-place fantasy football team — are of no use to her. If you're an adult, you start to put your generation's political problems in perspective; if you're a teenager, you laugh uncomfortably and look at your friends to see if it's okay that you're enjoying this. But if you're a kid, you're now in the Indiana militia, and can't wait for what comes next.

She hurries you into the store, and encourages you to help yourself to supplies, on the house. She'd prefer that you put them to use before General John Hunt Morgan and his rogue Confederate raiders smash in the windows, loot the store, set it on fire and use their own weapons against them.

A host of townsfolk appear, armed with opinions. One Hoosier will fight for unity to the death. Another wants peace, even at the cost of secession and continued slavery. He makes no apologies and speaks frankly. Part of you hates him, and another part hopes you're not him, that your family wasn't him. If you're an adult, you start to ponder the complexity of the Civil War for the first time in a decade; if you're a teenager, you laugh at his suspenders. If you're a kid, you realize, perhaps for the first time, that war was not an obvious resolution to slavery. And then you laugh at his suspenders.

A young boy rides to the window with the foreseeable news that Morgan is rapidly approaching. What you did not expect was for the raiders to completely surround the building and set it on fire. The rebels smash the windows and make a mess of the shop. Suddenly, Morgan himself appears. He's a man amongst men with a ruggedly intimidating beard and he mercifully corrals his men. He restores order and offers you peace — as long as you don't get in his way. You live to fight another 20 minutes.

You're led past what remains of a smoking building to join the militia in the forest, where your ineptitude on the battlefield is justified by a simple order from your commanding officers: Get in the way. You can do that. You block the road with shrubbery and trees. You watch as farmers and teenagers try in vain to fend off the raiders and are forced to retreat. You see the enemy easily flank the untrained soldiers and take them prisoner. A few fall dead. Morgan's men take what they want. You wonder how much they took and what they'd take from your house. You hope it wouldn't be your PlayStation. Or the first season of Mad Men on Blu-ray. You feel vulnerable and wonder if your wife will let you buy a gun. Then the thought occurs to you that she might use it on said PlayStation. You don't want a gun anymore.

The townspeople return, with more opinions. You decide which of them would be the modern-day "birthers," and more importantly, which would be you. But the best part of living history as opposed to living life is that you get to choose your side with the glorious advantage of hindsight. As your journey through Morgan's raid comes to its inevitable and victorious end, you take time to celebrate with your fellow troops.

Like most things, the Civil War journey at Conner Prairie will only give back what you put into it. It's easy to approach a living history museum with an apathetic sense of sarcasm and find things to mock. But it's a much richer experience once you squint your eyes and open yourself up to the producer's intended effects: immersing visitors in a fascinating piece of Indiana history and starting a dialogue.

Even if you've been to Conner Prairie a billion times, you've never seen an exhibit like 1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana. It's a chance to let living history not only unfold before your eyes, but surround you.

The action is largely prerecorded, but it's staged in such a way that it is all around you and fully engaging. The technology and set design of the exhibit was shockingly impressive — on par with something you might see at Disney World. The motif is tame and safe enough for a wide range of participants, including children of any age, pregnant women and the elderly, at the expense of any frantic running or harassment from real-life Civil War re-enactors, which I had secretly hoped for.

It's a good fit for all ages, but each demographic may have its own wish list. Older kids and teenagers might want a faster pace and more opportunities for role-playing and audience interaction. Former militiamen or history buffs might walk away wishing there had been more political and historical context. However, these things are only sacrificed for the sake of a well-balanced event.

The project's true success lies in the critical questions posed, and each individual's response or further questioning of those subtle complexities. Even if you're underwhelmed by the action and you already knew the entire story of Morgan's Raiders, the conversations that take place afterward are invaluable. And to that extent the event is a colossal artistic and educational achievement. —Andrew Roberts

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