Meet Conner Prairie’s New President, Norman O. Burns II
Writer / Kara Reibel
Photographer / Brian Brosmer
Norman Burns II, the new President and CEO of Conner Prairie, takes the helm at an exciting time.
With 28 years of experience in leadership roles at historic institutions around the country, Burns and his wife Sandy are embracing their new adventure with Conner Prairie. Originally from Tennessee, the Burns feel at home in Indiana and are arriving at the beginning of a year-long Bicentennial Celebration for our 200 years of Indiana statehood.
“I am excited for the opportunity to be here at this time,” shares Burns. His experience includes being a part of the Bicentennial celebration in Tennessee, a Bicentennial of the southwest territory and the 400th celebration of the founding of Jamestown.
Burns clearly understands the impact that these events have on the awareness of history. “This is what we do at Conner Prairie every day,” says Burns. “We celebrate history.”
The mission of Conner Prairie is to inspire curiosity and foster learning about Indiana’s past by providing engaging, individualized and unique experiences. Conner Prairie is a Smithsonian affiliate and a national award-winning interactive experiential outdoor museum.
Indiana’s Bicentennial Celebration takes on very special meaning at Conner Prairie. The Conner House played a major role in shaping Indiana’s policies from early on. “We are using Indiana’s Bicentennial celebration to share the story of Indiana’s story of territory to statehood,” says Conner Prairie VP and COO Cathy Ferree.
While the Bicentennial will be celebrated throughout Conner Prairie, a main feature of the Bicentennial celebration will take place at the Conner House. Beginning March 26, guests will be invited to enter from the front of the Conner House, facing the prairie, instead of the rear of the home. The interactive experience will transport guests back in time to explore what might have happened in the home during the era of statehood infancy.
“The interactive, dramatic story about what happened here in the Conner House will be shared in a new way,” shares Ferree. “The Conner House is more than a structure. We want guests to experience the story of who lived here, what was happening in the community around it and how is it important today.”
The restoration and reinterpretation of the Conner House at Conner Prairie is designated an official Indiana Bicentennial Legacy Project. The Conner House shaped Indiana’s history, for it was a meeting held in that very house that changed the location of the state capital of Indiana.
“Two hundred years ago, William Conner arrived as a fur trapper. He fought in the War of 1812 and witnessed Indiana’s transition from territory to statehood,” says Ferree. “Trapper, trader to gentleman and statesmen, Conner left a legacy. Over the years, his home bustled with visitors discussing legislation. The home served as a cultural hub where big ideas were stretched and pulled.”
In addition to the Bicentennial celebration, Conner Prairie is introducing a new experience for their guests, Treetop Outpost, opening July 1. For the past five years, Conner Prairie has introduced nature programming as a unique lens on history. Treetop Outpost is a culmination of these efforts and supports Conner Prairie’s mission to inspire curiosity and foster family learning.
“We started asking questions such as, ‘How can we help kids get more wild?’ Wouldn’t it be wild if we gave them an outdoor space where they could connect with their parents in nature?” says Ferree. “Imaginations are kindled like a wildfire. It’s not about taking away gadgets – it’s about captivating imaginations.”
The 40’ tall structure will feature interactive discovery zones all around it. Guests will dig in, literally, discovering the story of what we leave behind. Building upon the lessons of the past, there willbe a construction area to build things with no computers involved. The hands-on experiences will provide another unique interactive experience for guests.
The debut of Treetop Outpost at Conner Prairie comes amidst Indiana’s Bicentennial celebration and the country’s 100-year anniversary of the nation’s parks system.
Coming into the Presidency at Conner Prairie during this exciting time, Burns has hit the ground running. “Conner Prairie is such a wonderful asset to the community, which is why I plan to work diligently to be part of its continued growth for many years to come. As a public historian and nonprofit leader who believes in the power of creativity, I am excited to now be part of Conner Prairie’s mission to inspire curiosity and foster learning about Indiana’s past by providing engaging, individualized and unique experiences. I am continually reminded that the history of humanity is the history of ideas. I believe the unique experiences at Conner Prairie do inspire curiosity and make this a place where imagination soars.”
Conner Prairie has a $33 million impact on the local economy. With 350 employees, the impact is direct with $11 million of this impact in Hamilton County alone. This includes 590 jobs created outside the prairie through local impact.
“While I will never be short of new ideas, I want to assure you that I see my job like a precious library book that I’ve been honored to check out for a period of time,” says Burns. “My responsibility is to be inspired by it, nurture it, plan for how to take care of it, possibly improve it and maybe even add a creative chapter or two. It is then the custodian’s role (mine and the organization’s) to communicate its themes and inspire others to enjoy and use it. But I always know that I have to take that book back and turn it in some day for the next person to check out.”
The vision is to have Conner Prairie become more connected throughout the state of Indiana. A Smithsonian affiliate, Conner Prairie is award-winning and nationally and regionally recognized. Now let’s gather up the locals…and let the celebration begin!
To plan your interactive experience, please visit connerprairie.org for more information.