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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Lost and Found in the Collection

One of my major projects as a Museum Division intern has been to go through objects found in our collection, or “FIC.” FIC objects are ones that have no record, were recorded as missing, misplaced, or were never part of the Museum Division collection in the first place and somehow, over time, ended up in collections storage.

Every week, I select several objects to bring to the Museum Collections Committee (MCC). At these meetings it is decided whether to accept these objects into the permanent collection. So far, I have submitted about one hundred FIC items to the MCC. There have been finds that have ranged from interesting to confusing.

One of the most interesting finds has been a bearskin jumpsuit. This suit is heavy and big. It was probably made for a person over six feet, since the jumpsuit spread across an entire work table when I took a picture of it. Inside the suit the pockets are made of denim, indicating that whoever made this cut the pockets out of a pair of jeans and sewed them to this bearskin jumpsuit. We have no records of this piece and have no idea how it ended up in museum collections storage. We do know, however, that whoever wore this stayed very warm. Because this item is so unique, the MCC decided it should be accepted into the Museum Division’s collection.

Bearskin Jumpsuit

Bearskin jumpsuit found folded with no information on a shelf in storage.

I also found a small binder in the collection. At first glance, this was relatively unexciting and looked like some kind of small science textbook. After taking it to the Museum Collections Committee, we found that it was actually a guide to a rock collection that we have in our possession. Now, we can properly identify these rocks from the collector himself. At some point this guide book was separated from where it belongs, and now these two items are being stored together.

Binder of photos and newspaper clippings

The binder had photos and newspaper clippings about the donor and collector as well as a guide to the collection.

Not everything I find stays with the Museum Division. Some of these finds go to the Instructional Collection maintained by SHSND’s Communication and Education Division. Staff uses this collection for educational programs, allowing the public to touch the items. For example, I recently found a box of nails and some silverware. For the Museum Division, these items are not a good fit for the permanent collection. We do not have a history of where they came from, and we already have similar items in the collection. By putting them in the Instructional Collection, the public will be able to get a closer look and learn about them.

Found-in-collections items

These are just a few examples of found-in-collections objects that have gone to the education collection.

Some items we decide we don’t want. In these cases, I offer them to institutions around North Dakota. Many times they are taken by other educational institutions, museums, and historical societies. Recently, another institution took a military patch representing the 47th Infantry Division of the Minnesota National Guard. We already had four of these patches in the museum collection, but we were able to transfer this patch to a county historical society that had none. This is a way that we can avoid redundancies in our collection and allow other institutions across the state to tell stories using objects they currently do not have.

47th Infantry Division of the Minnesota National Guard patch

This patch from the 47th Infantry Division of the Minnesota National Guard is now helping a different institution interpret their history.

Museum professionals don’t like to discuss the uncataloged “found” items in a collection. However, this is a reality everywhere. When only a few people are responsible for thousands of objects, things are bound to be misplaced or mislabeled due to human error or just plain circumstance. Record keeping did not use to be as stringent as it is now. Museum database software also makes it easier to keep all information in one place. Being able to help find permanent homes for lost objects has been extremely rewarding. Institutions across the state can use these items, and we can finally put all the pieces of other objects back together again.


Guest Blogger: Maria Mears

ElenoreMaria Mears is originally from Champaign, Illinois and is a graduate student at Eastern Illinois University working towards a degree in Historical Administration. She is a registration intern in the museum division and works with incoming and outgoing loans, contacts donors, edits a procedures manual, and works with the found-in-collections items.

Please Excuse the Mess: Exhibit Installation in Progress

This summer, as collections interns, we had two major projects. The first was discussed in the last post by my fellow intern, Meg Glazier-Anderson (http://blog.statemuseum.nd.gov/blog/teeth-cleaning). The second was the Recent Acquisitions Case.

The purpose of collections care and maintenance—and museums themselves—is to preserve heritage and history for future generations as best we can. Collections care goes beyond maintaining an updated catalog, periodic inventory, and correct storage practices. It revolves around sharing and exploring history with the public. Telling the stories we have collected, preserved, and maintained helps connect future generations with their past and keep true to the ideals of what a museum is and should be.

We interns tried to keep that in mind as we developed the Recent Acquisitions Case. The case is located in the Corridor of History, near the Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time. Every year new interns search out artifacts and stories they would like to include in the case. When a list is finalized, our next steps are creating a layout for placement of the artifacts, writing labels, researching related materials, and making dozens of small adjustments as things change and stories become more cohesive. At the end of our collective time, with only about six weeks to design the case, interns de-installed last year’s exhibit and installed the new.

Layout experiments

Layout experiments. We found it useful to adjust our layouts on the full scale.

There are very few requirements or criteria for the case, but artifacts must have been acquired by the museum within the last year. Though most of our artifacts came from the Museum Division general collection, we worked with the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division and the North Dakota Geological Survey’s paleontologists to discuss some of their recent finds as well. We had an abundance of choices. Since there is no timeline we had to stick to, nor just one story to tell, we took advantage of the wildly varying objects within the museum’s collections. Each intern chose a few pieces she liked for the interesting story, unique construction, or nostalgia, and together we put the disparate objects into related sections and stories.

"St. Jakob's Oel" bottle

A bottle of “St. Jakob’s Oel” from Fort Rice, one of the pieces from the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division’s collections.  (Photo by David Nix).

For those who have not seen the case, it spans prehistoric time to the early 2000s; from a Subhyracodon occidentalis skull—an ancient rhino—to an iMac computer. There are Barbies, a bowling dress, 19th century medicine bottles, and musical instruments, among other things. The case proved a real chance for us not only to show off our exhibit design skills (and gain a few more) but to show off the breadth of the collection. It’s not a large case, all things considered--12 feet x 8 feet x 3 feet, and yet it contains so many stories, objects, and ideas.

The process of putting the case together, from artifact selection to installation, was an adventure in group work, constant readjustment, and often asking advice from the people who do this every day and with whom we worked closely. We wanted to share the stories we get to work with every day and show our visitors how much a museum can discover and share.

Recent Acquisitions case with interns

The three museum division interns—Meg, Maria, and Elenore—in front of the installed case. (photo by Genia Hesser)


Guest Blogger: Elenore Leonard

ElenoreElenore is a Museum Studies Graduate Student at the University of Kansas. During her internship with Collections in the Museum Division, she worked with inventory of collections, documenting and cataloging new acquisitions, assisting with exhibit design, prep, and installation, and other miscellaneous tasks as needed.