HANNAH Murphy and Easton Philips sit at a small, round table in a cramped back room, surrounded by clear plastic bins filled with crayons and toys, talking about history. The relatively tiny supply room inside Conner Prairie’s preschool building also happens to be where the pair of curatorial research associates records their engaging new podcast, This is Problematic!, which began its 10-episode second season in April.
For those who haven’t yet discovered This is Problematic!, Phillips and Murphy explain not only their Conner Prairie research but also take a broad look at hotly debated topics, such as the gentrification of historically Black neighborhoods in Indianapolis and the representation of Native Americans—or lack thereof—in popular culture over the years. “Many of those systems in place back then are still in place now,” Phillips says. “By telling the truth [about these people and events], hopefully we can spur action where problems still exist today.”
In several ways, the hosts bring outsider perspectives to their research and podcasting duties. Neither one is from Central Indiana; Phillips was born and raised in Cincinnati—“the greatest city on Earth,” he proudly proclaims at every conceivable opportunity—while Murphy hails from Scotland. One of the more endearing aspects of each podcast is when Murphy’s usually imperceptible Scottish lilt shines through on random words like reality and now. But more importantly, as a woman and a Black man, both embody voices that weren’t represented in most history texts until relatively recently.
This is Problematic! gives an interesting, behind-the-scenes look at the historical research process and explains why the history many of us were taught in school is, in many ways, flawed. For generations, it was presented through a “top-down” perspective, which looked at events through the eyes of the ruling classes. Here in the United States, that’s typically been wealthy white men. But for the last few decades, museums and other learning institutions have followed an evolution in academic approach called the “bottom-up” approach, which reframes history through the lens of everyday people. While this is generally considered a richer view of history, spotlighting different perspectives and more diverse voices, it can be more difficult to uncover. Working class people didn’t leave as many documents or other tangible clues about their day-to-day lives behind, Murphy explains.
The podcast was 100 percent the idea of Conner Prairie leadership, who wanted to share their new research with a more adult audience. A podcast seemed like the perfect medium. Whereas it can take several years for new facts to find their way into an exhibit, a podcast can get that information to the public much faster. Despite having no background in audio storytelling, Murphy and Phillips were eager to participate when approached. “We were doing the research anyway, so why not?” Phillips says.
The 10-episode first season of the podcast premiered late last year and has garnered more than 4,000 listeners from around the globe, but the audience is primarily in Indiana. Perhaps the most memorable episode of that first season discussed a collection of 25 articles written by Associated Press reporter and Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame member Dale Wright Burgess that were compiled in an award-winning book, Just Us Hoosiers and How We Got That Way, in 1966. To say the book is politically incorrect would be a massive understatement. “We’re glad our takes wound up coming across quite freely, but that was actually the episode we prepared the most for,” Murphy recalls. “It was certainly impossible to explore it without tackling some of the more inflammatory sections, which were uncomfortable for us to even read out loud. We tried to be very aware of not elevating the book or creating ‘reaction theatre’ around it.”
The pair has a 20-page Google list with ideas for future episodes, which are being recorded and aired monthly. One idea that’s likely to make the cut is the story of the temperance movement that swept through Westfield in the days before prohibition and led a mob of more than 40 women to destroy the town’s saloon. Twice.
Murphy says Conner Prairie’s leadership has complete trust in them, giving them carte blanche over podcast content—even when they’re stripping away some of the heroic sheen of the museum’s own namesake, William Conner.
For decades, an elementary school field trip to Conner Prairie was a rite of passage for thousands upon thousands of Central Indiana children. If you grew up here, you almost certainly have fond memories of a sunny day off from school visiting the volunteers in period dress as they reenacted life in a 19th-century prairie town. When Conner was referred to by those volunteers, it seemed to be in an almost reverential tone. In one podcast, Murphy mentioned that she was surprised so many people, from staff and volunteers to adult visitors, have such an emotional attachment to Conner, forged by those annual school trips. “Back in the day, you didn’t take William Conner’s name in vain here,” Phillips says. “He was painted as this noble symbol, but in many ways, he really represents the myth of the frontier … a lot of the credit given to him was likely misallocated.”
When the property on which Conner Prairie sits first became a living history museum in 1934, historical accuracy wasn’t at the forefront of the founders’ minds. The museum’s original depictions of Conner were taken from the sources at their fingertips, including a book written by a family member. Because Conner didn’t leave much behind in the way of formal records, Phillips says, the original museum historians likely inferred many of his more mythical attributes, exaggerating his war exploits and business accomplishments.
But as researchers dug into Conner’s past, some uncomfortable truths came to light. The museum had always heralded Conner’s close relationship with the Lenape Tribe. So close, in fact, that he was married to a Lenape woman named Mekinges, who was the daughter of Chief Anderson, after whom the nearby town is named. But what wasn’t known until recently was that the 26-year-old Conner may have married Mekinges when she was 12. Eighteen years later, he would help negotiate a treaty that forced the Lenape out of Indiana—including Mekinges and their six children. Three months after their departure for Missouri, William Conner, now age 43, married Elizabeth Chapman, 18, and fathered an additional 10 children.
“People want to feel good about their history,” Phillips says. “We get that it can be hard to disconnect analysis from emotion, especially when it’s a story you think you know. But no matter how old we are, we can still learn new things. We need to be open to fresh perspectives.”
While researching the museum’s upcoming Promised Land as Proving Ground exhibit, Phillips discovered how Conner’s life also intertwined with Pete Smith, a free Black man popular in the local community at the time. One of Conner’s Kentucky business associates filed a false claim in out-of-state court that Smith was his escaped slave, and when the Kentuckian returned to Indiana, he captured Smith. The Noblesville townspeople wanted to free Smith and lynch his captor, but Conner talked them out of it. That fall, with Smith conveniently out of the way, Conner harvested Smith’s corn crop, keeping the proceeds for himself. (These newly uncovered facts are discussed at length in Episodes 4, 5, and 6 of the first season.)
“Mythologizing historical figures isn’t beneficial for anyone,” Murphy says, tapping her fingers. “We’re not attempting to entirely dismiss William Conner or anyone else from our past; all human beings make mistakes and are problematic in their own ways. We only want to present a more fully formed person to our audience.”
Perhaps surprisingly, given the culture wars that have gripped much of Indiana and the entire country and the pushback against teaching alternative historical perspectives, very little negative reaction has resulted from these podcast reevaluations. Volunteers and staff members have expressed more concern than the public, Phillips says, but not because of devotion to William Conner. They simply hate the idea that they may have been giving their visitors wrong information for all these years. “The public wants simple, objective answers,” says Jody Blankenship, Indiana Historical Society president and CEO, “but when we’re looking at history, that’s almost never the case. People are complicated, so history is complicated.”
The This is Problematic! podcast can be streamed now on ConnerPrairie.org/this-is-problematic, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.