flying toward success: a collaborative approach to designing 1859 balloon voyage at conner prairie

Thanks to Conner Prairie’s General Manager for Experience Delivery, David Allison,  for this guest post.  

Winner, 2009 Pinnacle Award for “Best Of Show” for the 1859 Balloon Voyage Exhibit Launch.

The biggest news at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park north of Indianapolis in the last year was the debut of our new 1859 Balloon Voyage experience. This project has been highly successful and highly popular for our guests. We had over 21,000 people fly to 400 feet in our balloon last year as we told the story of John Wise’s airmail journey through interactive exhibits and engaging storytelling. As project manager for the contenballoont and operations of the balloon, people often ask me how we were able to blend the modern balloon experience with the unique Indiana story of the first airmail flight. As we delved deeper into John Wise’s story, we realized that we were going to need to consult with experts in the field of aviation history. One of our first official meetings about the balloon project involved the world’s authority on the history of ballooning in America- Dr. Tom Crouch, the chief curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. His expertise helped to guide the stories that we told through our exhibits to keep us firmly “grounded” in the history of aviation. Additionally, he explained to us how America’s fascination with flight in the 19th century led to the excitement surrounding John Wise’s flight from Lafayette, IN, in 1859. 


Tom Crouch then joined us for the debut of the exhibit in June as a keynote speaker. Our on-going relationship with Dr. Crouch (and the Smithsonian network of museums in general through our new Smithsonian Affiliation) led us to finding out about an annual Air and Space Museum conference that is held in Washington DC. This year, myself (Dave Allison, General Manager for Experience Delivery) and BJ Sullivan (Chief Pilot for 1859 Balloon Voyage) attended the Mutual Concerns conference in DC in late March to share with other Air and Space Museum professionals from around the country how Conner Prairie designed and developed our cutting-edge fusion ofballoon3 a modern-day thrill ride (the balloon) with an age-old historical story about Indiana’s past. This nexus of an exciting experience grounded in the reality of a unique Indiana story is the heart of Conner Prairie’s mission to “inspire curiosity and foster learning about Indiana’s past by providing engaging, individualized and unique experiences”.

Photos courtesy Conner Prairie.

Sculptures Available from NMAH

Stephen Hansen Sculptures Available to Affiliates from the National Museum of American History


One of the former sculptures in the Information Age exhibition, available for Affiliate adoption.

One of the sculptures in the former Information Age exhibition, available for Affiliate adoption.

The Information Age might seem like too serious a topic to loan itself to humor, but this is what happened when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History commissioned artist Stephen Hansen to design the entrance to its path breaking exhibition in 1990. Hansen’s take on how “new technologies” were overtaking our lives, resulted in a rotating tableau of nearly life-sized sculptures caught in moments of whimsy, anger, and existential befuddlement.  Since that time Hansen’s reputation has skyrocketed and his works have been displayed in museums, galleries, and embassies around the world.


These sculptures, all made out of papier-mâché, are one-of-a-kind and are available, through transfer of ownership, individually or ensemble as shown in these pictures.  The receiving Affiliate will be responsible for arranging pickup from the National Museum of American History and shipping.  The sculptures come uncrated.


Enliven your space with artistry that appeals to all and reminds us to laugh as we plod our way through  technology-driven lives.  Contact your National Outreach Manager at for further information.




what does it mean to be human?


Five fossil human skulls  show how the shape of the face and braincase of early humans changed over the past 2.5 million years.

Five fossil human skulls show how the shape of the face and braincase of early humans changed over the past 2.5 million years.

How do you define human?!  Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of its official opening on the Mall, the National Museum of Natural History plans to open a new Hall of Human Origins based on decades of cutting-edge research by Smithsonian scientists.  Part of its broader “Human Origins: What Does it Mean to be Human?” initiative, the Hall transports visitors through a dramatic time tunnel depicting human life and environments over the past 6 million years.  The epic story of human evolution is told through the drama of climate change, and shows how survival and extinction have characterized our ancient human past. 

Forensically reconstructed faces of early humans, a display of more than 75 skulls, and an interactive 6 million-year-old family tree are highlights in the Hall.   Can’t visit?  Not to worry.  The Museum and National Geographic are publishing a book, What Does It Mean to be Human?; PBS will air a three-part series later in the year entitled, “Becoming Human: Unearthing Our Earliest Ancestors;” and the Museum will completely reproduce the exhibition through the Blue Mars virtual world website. 

As always, scholars, research and related collections are available to Affiliates for public or school programs, exhibitions, or however you spin your own human story.  Interested in collaborating?  Contact your outreach manager at

 So come by this spring to meet your ancient ancestors.  And be sure to wish them a happy birthday.

are you wendish?

wendishThis question has been on my mind since visiting the Institute of Texan Cultures to announce our new affiliation on January 28, 2010.  Housed in the formidable Texas Pavilion, a landmark of San Antonio’s HemisFair Park, the Institute celebrates the diverse heritage of early Texans in its core exhibition, Texans One and All. Here one finds thoughtfully interpreted and artifact-filled displays of Mexican, African American, Czech, German, Jewish, and Lebanese Texans, among others, and…. Wends.

A quick survey of friends and Smithsonian savants revealed that I was not alone in my unfamiliarity with this group of Texans.  Wends it turns out are a Slavic people who began migrating into Germany and the Baltic region in the first millennium and have maintained their ethnic identity ever since.  The Wends of Texas, better known as Sorbs or Lusatian Serbs, first arrived in Texas in 1853, settling in German speaking areas, and eventually populating the towns of Serbin and Giddings.


UTSA President Dr. Ricardo Romo; Dr. Harriett Romo Director of UTSA CAPRI/MEXICO CENTER; Harold Closter, Director of Smithsonian Affiliations and Tim Gette, Executive Director, ITC.

The Institute of Texan Cultures, organizer of the Texas Folklife Festival, served as a catalyst for the revitalization of Wendish culture in Texas through its annual call for festival participants, which helped to launch the Texas Wendish Heritage Society.  Today, according to the Institute, “the community at Serbin holds an annual Wendish Fest and extends a welcome, Witajcže K’nam, to visitors. During the affair church services are conducted in German and English, a Czech band may play, and corn-shucking contests are held. Some of the local descendants dress in European Wendish costume.”  The Institute emphasizes colorful Wendish wedding traditions in its display.

This is just one of the many stimulating encounters to be found at the Institute of Texan Cultures.  It is not surprising that a state with so much space and so many natural resources would be a magnet for so many different people.  Whether familiar or not, there is always much to learn about the heritage of our predecessors, and the adaptations and sacrifices made or forced upon them.  At the Texas banquet table, diversity is served in complex and compelling dishes.  There’s room for all at this enormous spread….including the Wendish.


Tim Gette and Congressman Charles A. Gonzalez (TX-20) at ceremony announcing the affiliation between the Institute of Texan Cultures and the Smithsonian Institution.

Stop by the Institute of Texan Cultures when you are next in San Antonio and offer a hearty Witajcže K’nam.  They’ll know what you’re talking about.

Rubin Museum finds rare treasures in Smithsonian library

Thanks to the Rubin Museum of Art’s curatorial assistant Tracey Friedman for this guest post.  Here, Tracey explains what happened when she came to Washington to research medieval cosmology in the Smithsonian’s Dibner Library for their upcoming exhibit, Visions of the Cosmos.    

Rubin Museum curatorial assistant Tracey Friedman researches medieval cosmology at Smithsonian Library.

Rubin Museum curatorial assistant Tracey Friedman researches medieval cosmology at the Smithsonian's Dibner Library.

We started with the questions:  How did we come to be? What is beyond the earth? How did the universe begin? How has man conceived of his place in the universe throughout history? The human condition is marked by an awareness of a mortal self and a curiosity about the surrounding world, giving rise to certain questions that have been answered by myths, philosophies, and mathematics.  The Rubin Museum of Art’s (RMA) upcoming exhibition, Visions of the Cosmos: From the Milky Ocean to an Evolving Universe, will explore the different systems, both religious and scientific, that have developed in Eastern and Western cultures to explain man’s relationship to the universe.

 As the curatorial assistant for this exhibition, I was charged with providing the research for the Western portion of the show. I had help from a greatly accomplished astrophysicist in putting together a preliminary list of potential objects, but it wasn’t nearly enough to narrate the Western tale of the cosmos.

We turned to the Smithsonian.  As a new Affiliate, we relied on the help of our liaison, Jennifer, to set up the appropriate avenues to research a new subject area. She believed the best outlet to meet our needs was the Dibner Library. I was a bit skeptical because I had never heard of this library and felt the allure of other more well-known Smithsonian museums and research centers. Jennifer sent me a list of relevant books held by the Dibner, available from their online catalog (another great resource for Affiliates). I had a list of remarkable pieces to start with, many of which were housed at the Dibner itself, inside the National Museum of American History. I decided that I needed to see these pieces for myself and find the images that would illustrate our story.

Within two weeks I had an appointment and traveled the four-and-a-half hours to Washington D.C. When I arrived, the staff at the Dibner Library had all of the books I requested, and more, set out for me. To my pleasant surprise, the librarians took my topic and ran with it. I was presented with numerous books dealing with an assortment of corresponding themes that they had extracted from my original list. I was impressed by the effort that had been put into this scholarly search, and thankfully, one of the librarians explained their research strategies and rationale with me upon my arrival. I was then led into the cozy, dimly-lit reading room and sat down with my pile of books for the rest of the day. Each time I reached the maximum limit of books allowed in the room, the pile would rotate out for an equally large stack. I was thumbing through each of the books, making notes and marking pages of interest. Instead of drawing my typical makeshift renderings of the images, the librarian made a copy of the pages I selected. I was elated.

I am so pleased with the final selection of books that we are borrowing from the Dibner for our show. The section of the show I researched will trace how Western medieval anthropocentric cosmology, which envisioned humans at the center of a static universe, was replaced in the Renaissance by a heliocentric universe, giving rise to our present, evolving astrophysical worldview. Among the 6 rare books we borrowed from the Smithsonian are texts ranging from the 10th – 17th centuries, representing great scientists and philosophers such as Galileo, Oronce Finé, and Joannes de Sacro Bosco.

My experience made it clear that my institution’s new affiliation with the Smithsonian will be a great tool for us.   I hope that my experience inspires other Affiliates to create similar partnerships and take advantage of smaller Smithsonian entities like the Dibner Library.

To read more stories about discoveries and collections at the Smithsonian’s network of 20 libraries, check out their blog and website.

the sky’s the limit at NASM

What do an object loan coordinator, digitized posters, a public observatory and a virtual conference have in common? All are opening the collections and resources of the National Air and Space Museum in new and exciting ways!

Hunter Hollins,

Hunter Hollins, loan coordinator, space history

New Loan Coordinator: Hunter Hollins

Hunter joined the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in May of this year.  With almost 20 years of experience working with museums to manage exhibitions of art and artifacts of cultural heritage, Hunter is excited to help Affiliates get the most from their relationship with the NASM. He’s currently working with the Challenger Space Center, a Smithsonian Affiliate in Peoria, Arizona, on a loan of artifacts related to life in space. There’s some surprising items on the list- including “ChapStick” (to ensure the astronauts’ comfort) and fishing line and hooks, in case they had too much time floating in the Pacific Ocean when they returned!

Hunter works closely with borrowers to maintain our national treasures while on exhibit so they can be enjoyed and studied by generations to come.

NASM’s “Fly Now!” Poster Collection online


At the end of this summer, staff at NASM achieved a milestone: they had photographed, scanned and catalogued most of the museum’s collection of 1,300 posters.  The posters, which date from 1827 and include contemporary examples, are available for the first time online.  View them here.


Amelia Brakeman Kile, an intern who worked on the project, said that their efforts will allow scholars to “contribute to knowledge, study and discussion of this valuable resource.”  Read more in her blog post.


NASM's telescope, on loan from Harvard

NASM's telescope, on loan from Harvard

Harvard on the Mall: NASM Opens a Public Observatory
400 years ago, Galileo made the first recorded astronomical observations with a telescope. To commemorate his achievement, NASM opened a public observatory on the National Mall. The observatory features a 16 inch, 3,000 pound telescope on loan from the Harvard College Observatory. During daylight hours, visitors can view the moon, bright stars and planets, and with a special filter, the sun. And, for the next three months, visitors can see the Smithsonian Dibner Library’s first edition of Galileo’s “Sidereus Nuncius” after they view the heavens.

Apollo Space Program Virtual Conference for Educators

Join experts from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for the Apollo Space Program Virtual Conference, a FREE one-day online conference on Tuesday, November 10. Forty years ago the Apollo Space Program met President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon, one of the most significant achievements of the 20th Century. Join experts as they present the challenges of the Apollo Program and examine the remarkable technologies that made the moon landings possible.  Click here for session details and registration .