President of the Prairie: Norman Burns enjoying new role as president, CEO at Conner Prairie

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By Sam Elliott

Norman Burns, the latest president and CEO at Fishers’ Conner Prairie, hasn’t been in his new position for long, but he’s liked his first months on the job since taking over earlier this year to long-time favorite footwear that fits like a glove.

“It just seems so comfortable,” Burns said. “Somebody recently was asking me how it felt being here, and I said, ‘You know, it really feels like a pair of old slippers.’ Conner Prairie just feels that way and that’s why it feels like the right fit for me personally and professionally. I’ve just stepped into those slippers and it’s been a really comfortable start.”

Burns is a veteran of the museum and historical site industry, having spent nearly the past 30 years working at four locations in Tennessee and one in Virginia before coming to Indiana. And each stop along his career path has offered experience that should lend itself well to Conner Prairie.

The Historic Sam Davis Home and Plantation in Smyrna, Tenn., gave Burns his first taste of museum and historical site administration.

“The Sam Davis Home was the home of the boy hero of the Confederacy, so I’ve had a little background on Civil War sites,” he said. “It was as director of the Sam Davis home that I really kind of cut my teeth at working at a museum and learning programming, learning customer service, learning to work with donors and boards, big festivals and all those kind of things.”

Burns was then the director at the Rocky Mount Museum in Piney Flats, Tenn., which, like Conner Prairie, offers guests immersion into a first-person living history site.

“We did many of the same activities there that we do at Conner Prairie, everything from traditional woodworking and blacksmithing to open hearth cooking, spinning and weaving,” Burns said.

The Chattanooga Regional History Museum gave Burns a chance to work with more traditional museum exhibits and projects and at the Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville he worked on the business side of tourism, facility rentals and operations.

For nearly the past 10 years, Burns worked as executive director at Maymont, located in Richmond, Va.

“The best way to describe it is it’s a 100-acre historical, zoological and botanical park that is free and accessible to everyone, which is why they have over half a million visitors every year,” he said. “It’s also why the Maymont Foundation has to raise all the money to keep the gates open.

“Through the years, I have learned a lot and kind of touched on all the elements that Conner Prairie is about, from living history to creative programming and those types of things and so to me it’s personally and professionally just the right fit at the right time,” Burns added.

Burns said he first started bumping into Conner Prairie executives at regional and national living history museum conferences in the early to mid-1990s, and has kept his eye on the trend-setting site ever since.

“We have really done a really good job of being known in the museum and education community for kind of setting the standard for the way we interpret and the way we program our site,” he said. “I want to see us just continue to do more of that and that will help us with getting out to more national audiences.”

Get to know Norman Burns

  • Approaching 32nd wedding anniversary this June with wife, Sandy. The couple has three grown sons and one daughter-in-law all living in Virginia.
  • Earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Middle Tennessee State University
  • First impressions of Indiana: “I’m enjoying learning about all of Hamilton Co. and I’m really excited about the development of Fishers,” he said. “You want to be in a place where that’s happening and that’s what excites me about Conner Prairie — we’re doing the same thing, we’re always developing something new, we’re always putting ourselves out there and to be representing the past and looking to its future I think is a really good connector for Hamilton Co.”
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