Turning old history into new: Indiana State Museum opens first part of revamp


Before heading out into the precarious Indiana wilderness, visitors to the Indiana State Museum will have to envision the supplies settlers would have needed for the Conestoga wagon.

They can listen to the famous words of Little Turtle, in his own Miami language, as he spoke to them at the signing of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795.

Kids can climb into a black bear’s cave, hear the chorus of Indiana’s native frogs and glimpse the massive trees and abundant wildlife that filled the state’s wild areas before settlers moved in.

“We wanted to give visitors a sense of what natural Indiana is, even if they can’t get to those places anymore,” said Damon Lowe, chief curator of science and technology at the museum.

The Indiana State Museum has unveiled the first part of its multiphase transformation, completely reimagining its existing galleries and building new ones to more thoroughly tell Indiana’s story. With an emphasis on interactive experiences, the redesigned galleries offer visitors unique access to the state’s history.

With the first of a five-phase, $18.2-million investment in redesigning the museum and 11 historic sites around the state complete, museum officials hope to make visitors feel more immersed in the Hoosier mentality than ever before.

“By designing these spaces, we really wanted to focus on the stories that our research found that people really wanted to know, that were important to the understanding of Indiana history,” said Susannah Koerber, senior vice president of collections and interpretations. “We wanted people to become more engaged with our galleries.”

Officials have been quietly working on the INVision campaign for many years. The goal is to take advantage of new technology and a changing approach to museums in order to bring in more visitors.

All aspects of the museum, from the Ice Age and Ancient Seas areas to the Birth of the Earth and Naturalist Lab will be completely redone.

The redesigned galleries and exhibitions lead to the museum’s 150th anniversary in 2019.

“Because of all the changes in technology, we are changing the way we tell Indiana’s stories,” said Tom King, president and CEO of the museum. “We are boldly transforming our galleries to change how visitors experience Indiana’s history.”

The new spaces — Natural Regions, Contested Territory and 19th State — highlight Indiana’s pre-settler wild areas, the conflict between Europeans and Native Americans and its march toward statehood.

That first phase opened to the public Nov. 12.

In Contested Territory, people peer down over a miniature replica of the town of Vincennes when it played a crucial role in a Revolutionary War battle.

They learn about great Native American leaders such as Tecumseh and the Prophet. Silver artifacts show what was prized in trading at the time.

“One of the greatest challenges was understanding what was really happening on the ground,” said Michele Greenan, director and curator of archaeology at the museum. “We know from this broad European colonial perspective that the French and the British and the Spanish were all vying for this land. Yet on the ground, Native Americans posed a huge threat to expansion. So trying to balance those two things was difficult.”

A picture is painted about the inability for Native Americans and incoming French, Spanish and English people to live together.

“This is where westward expansion gets started. Indiana is the place that global powers are concerned with during this period. It’s not farther out West, or just on the East Coast,” Koerber said. “This is really where some of the great conflicts of American history take place.”

Arguably the centerpiece of the gallery is a re-creation of Little Turtle’s address during the signing of the Treaty of Greenville. The treaty marked the defeat of native forces in the Indiana territory, and was the start of the wide scale displacement of Native American people.

Little Turtle spoke passionately about peace in his opening address. The museum worked with language experts to produce a recording of Little Turtle’s speech, done entirely in the Miami language.

“We thought this was a great opportunity to pull people in and give people the sense of what it was like to be there that day,” Koerber said.

In the 19th State gallery, the museum transitions the story from the fight for control of Indiana to how it became a true part of the United States.

People can see items such as a desk used by one of the state’s fathers, Jonathan Jennings, near the time Indiana’s constitution was being written.

The arrival of more settlers, including the family of Abraham Lincoln, is told through wagons, tools, housing and other authentic items from the early 1800s.

A major focus for curators and museum officials was how to make people connect better with the exhibits and information they were seeing.

The best way to do that was to let people touch and interact with the different displays, Koerber said.

Visitors can try out a butter churn to learn how pioneers made that vital foodstuff. Special panels in the floor show what a dirt, plank and stone road would feel like in the early 1800s.

The next phase of the museum’s redevelopment will begin in the spring of 2017, when the Ice Age and Prehistoric Native Americans galleries are given a makeover. All phases will be finished by the fall of 2019.

All of the work is aimed at providing a more entertaining visit to people who come to the museum, Koerber said. But at the same time, each time period featured throughout the building carries a central theme of learning from the past.

“What we do today has an impact on the future. What happened in the past still impacts today,” Koerber said. “That’s what we want people to understand.”

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Indiana State Museum

What: The museum opened its revamped Natural Regions, Contested Territory and 19th State galleries to the public Nov. 12

Where: 650 W. Washington St., Indianapolis

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Normal admission is adults $13, seniors $12, Indiana college students $9.75, children ages 3 to 17 $8.50 and children 2 and younger free

Information: indianamuseum.org

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