When a group of Ball State students first entered the Delphi Opera House on a cold day in early January 2018, they found the three-story building being restored to its original look that dates back to the Civil War.

To help connect the past with the 21st century, students have spent the last several months creating a museum exhibit plan that focuses on the opera house and its impact on Delphi, a community of about 2,900, and surrounding Carroll County. The exhibit plan includes historical artifacts found at the site and provides context through historical research and writing, and filming interviews to display.

“Before the opera house, I had never worked on designing a museum exhibit,” said Gwyneth Harris, an anthropology major. “This project offered experience working with clients and the opportunity to translate my love for history into a physical exhibit, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

“Working with the Delphi Opera House was a great experience, and one I’m likely to remember for a long time.”

Skills for the job market

The exhibit plan is being produced by Ball State students through the public history practicum course, under the direction of Professor Ronald V. Morris. The class is dedicated to developing practical skills for a variety of historic applications and careers after college.

He said his students researched various areas of community’s past that coincide with the history of the opera house, like Delphi’s early transportation systems and important figures such as James Whitcomb Riley. The Hoosier writer, poet, and best-selling author was a regular performer at the opera house in the 1800s.

“For the anthropology, history, and telecommunication students, it was important to design and create the entire project from beginning to end,” said Morris, who noted it would have taken community members several years to complete the project due to time constraints and the need for additional volunteers.

Professor Ron Morris

Professor Ron Morris investigates the unheated third floor of the building next to the opera house which was used as a green room as well as dressing rooms for opera acts. The performers signed their names throughout the space.

The Delphi Opera House opened in 1865 to celebrate the return of Indiana residents who fought in the Civil War. But the three-story facility fell in disrepair in the early 1900s and the opera house’s last event was in 1914.

The Delphi Preservation Society, created in 1994 to preserve the town’s historic architectural integrity, bought the building in 1996 after the theater had been closed for about 80 years.

As part of the project, students also created a video about the famous performances that took place at the Delphi Opera House and two behind-the-scenes videos for marketing purposes.

“Being able to work with historians to create a comprehensive video like this not only added to my interest and skill of history, but it also improved my skill set as a content creator,” said Max Harp, a telecommunications major and member of the student video team.

Patiently waiting

Morris admits he watched the opera house project for several years after meeting with members of the Delphi Preservation Society and jumped at the chance to play a role in helping recall the community’s historic past.

“Working with great students and interesting community partners on these types of engaging stories is always a pleasure,” said Morris, who has spent the last decade working on similar projects as a Ball State professor.

He has created media projects for cultural institutions and historical societies including exhibits such as one about Yount’s Mill for the Carnegie Museum. He created adaptive reuse reports, such as the one for the Delaware County Historical Society Museum, and four video games. He has also created two phone apps such as The Battle of Perryville and mobile experiences including both walking and driving tours of Carmel and a tour of western Wayne County.

“Immersive learning empowers our students, and they practice marketable skills that will boost their careers,” Morris said. “These projects also show that Ball State serves the state and Midwest as a major enhancement to quality of life in counties and towns.”