As a first-time visitor to Indiana, I discovered that the Indiana Historical Society delivers a surprisingly effective crash course in local history. Instead of reading a pamphlet and traipsing past display cases, I literally stepped into the past in the You Are There rooms. A fog curtain? created an almost magical screen between the present and the three-dimensional, interactive world of an old photo come to life. Through my conversations in a 1924 auto shop and a 1945 grocery store, I was able to uncover stories that I might have otherwise missed. When an auto mechanic told me about African-Americans being run out of town, I learned about the one-time strength of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. Until this encounter, I thought the Klan operated almost exclusively in the South. In contrast, an African-American shopper in the grocery store showed me that by the 1940s, an integrated community thrived in at least one part of the state.
Destination Indiana helped me find answers to questions that the exhibits raised. The virtual journeys led me to learn more about the role of the Klan in Indiana politics and society in the 1920s. It was nice to be able to set the pace as I looked through photos and documents, to zoom in without losing visual clarity, and to find related journeys. Though I was sitting in a dark room with a screen, I hardly felt like a passive viewer.
One of the challenges for historians is convincing the public that old documents and photos can still be relevant. The Indiana Historical Society has found creative ways to put its collection on display, engaging the visitor to do more than just look around. I believe this kind of creativity is what it takes to interest the 21st-century digital generation. It also adds an element of discovery to visiting the History Center. My conversations with the interpreters led me to unexpected places, teaching me far more about Indiana than I ever would have learned from reading a tourist pamphlet.