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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!

Keeping Track of Stuff

Documentation and housing are integral to museum collections work, and they make up a large part of my project as an intern at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Last year during a storm, the roof was damaged at one of the State Museum’s offsite collections storage facilities, known as Storage East. During the recovery activities, the collections team noted that most of the objects in the facility had poor documentation, lacked current photographs, and were in need of cleaning and rehousing. That’s where I come in.

My job is to update the information we have about objects housed at Storage East. Most of the objects stored there are furniture: bookcases, desks, chairs, trunks, and the like. Big stuff. Stuff that’s mostly made of wood, glass, and metal, and used to furnish exhibits and tell stories. But the records we have for them are outdated or incomplete. For example, we have a large collection of trunks, and for a few of them their documentation has the word “trunk” with no further description. This sparse documentation doesn’t do us much good if we’re trying to find a specific trunk and have no idea what it looks like. My task is to write a more thorough description of the objects’ materials, color, dimensions, and style.

person wearing gloves measures the width of a shopping cart

Measuring the dimensions of a shopping cart at Storage East.

I also need to conduct a thorough analysis of each object’s condition. Does it have any cracks? Any peeling varnish? Is the color faded? Or maybe the object is in great condition, almost as flawless as the day it was made. It’s my job to update this information, so we can track any future changes to the object, whether through another disaster or general deterioration.

laptop on a rolling stand sits amongs large artifacts

Creating a movable workstation while updating documentation.

When the object has been described, photographed, and labeled, it is easier to track as it moves from storage to exhibit, or even from storage room to storage room. For example, while working my way through one of the rooms, I found a lampshade. The shade had no object number, and there were no shadeless lamps in that room. I made a note of it, and a few rooms later, I found a lamp without a shade. By checking the photo in the lamp’s file, I was able to verify that the shade belonged to it, and reunite them. Without the previous documentation of the lamp, the objects would have stayed separate, making it difficult to use the lamp for exhibits or research.

room with striped walpaper and many artifacts

The separated lampshade is on the blue box, marked with orange flagging tape as a disassociated object.

gray lamp with silver lamp shade and light green lamp with tan lamp shade

Left: Original documentation photo of lamp. Right: Photo of the reunited lamp.

When I’m not describing the collections, I’m finding new ways to house them. Most of the objects have been stored on wood pallets, which is a good start. Museum objects should not sit directly on the floor, in case of flooding and to avoid any damage. Yet objects need additional protection from roof leaks and potential falling debris. Part of my project has been to research shelving options for the storage facility. I am using floor plans to measure how many shelving units we can fit into each room, using as much of our space as possible.

The progress on this project has been slow but significant. I’m always delighted when I locate a missing object or reunite pieces, and it’s a great feeling to do everything I can to make sure they will not be lost again. There’s a lot to do, but the project will help future collections staff, whether it’s through documentation, preparing for shelving, or dusting the objects. It all helps preserve these objects for the future.


Guest Blogger: Elise Dukart

EliseElise Dukart is a Collections Intern in the Audience Engagement & Museums division of the SHSND. She is working on a documentation project at Storage East, and also catalogs collections, assists with exhibit development, prep, and installation as well as other collections and registrar projects. She originally hails from Wibaux, MT and is working toward her M.A. in Heritage and Museum Sciences at Texas Tech University.

Imperfect Recent Acquisitions

Throughout the year, the State Historical Society accepts hundreds of objects into the museum collection, all with interesting stories to tell. Occasionally, we accept objects under non-ideal conditions. For instance, there may be gaps in an object’s history, or a donation arrives damaged.

In June 2018, Curator of Collections Management Jenny Yearous purchased a Native American jingle dress with military patches at a garage sale in Bismarck, North Dakota. The proprietor of the garage sale had received the jingle dress from someone at the United Tribes Technical College International Powwow in Bismarck and no longer wanted it. Unfortunately, the owner did not have any additional information, so we had to do our own investigating.

The dress is believed to have been worn by a member of the Native American Women Warriors (NAWW), a color guard of female veterans. They also perform a jingle dance, which some tribes regard as a healing rite traditionally performed by women. Founded by Mitchelene BigMan, NAWW is a nonprofit group based in Colorado. Their mission is to support U.S. veterans and their families.

Jingle dress with American flags, American Bald Eagle, and other decorations

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The back of the silver bodice has a series of patches sewn onto it, including “Native American Veteran,” “Iraq Veteran,” “Operation Iraqi Freedom/Woman Veteran,” and a “Bring Home or Send Us Back POW-MIA” patch. There is also a red, white, and blue ribbon with the words “Native American” on it, and in the center a large patch with an eagle head and the words, "THE NATION WHICH FORGETS ITS DEFENDERS WILL ITSELF BE FORGOTTEN / FALLEN HEROES / IN MEMORY OF OUR TROOPS / DEFENDERS OF OUR FREEDOM."

The Museum Collections Committee decided to accept this jingle dress into the collection despite not having much history about it. We simply do not have many contemporary Native American regalia, or many female-owned items related to the military. We have only one other jingle dress, which is not military-related. Combining the lack in the existing collection with the connection to the military and women, this object has an important place in the collection, even without a complete history.

If you or someone you know may have additional information about who wore this dress, please contact Melissa Thompson at 701.328.2691 or methompson@nd.gov.

stone sculpture

broken pieces of a stone sculpture

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Frances Reese donated a stone sculpture made of Colorado pink alabaster by the artist Tex Wounded Face. Wounded Face was born in Watford City, North Dakota, in 1955 and is of Mandan/Hidatsa descent. He passed away at the age of 57 in Scottsdale, Arizona. The sculpture was given to the donor’s husband, William F. Reese, when he and Wounded Face held a joint exhibit in Seattle in 1978.

The sculpture, titled The Americanization of the Native American, is the head and shoulders of a Native American with flowing hair, arms outstretched with a blanket covering the arms.

The box carrying the sculpture arrived at the North Dakota Heritage Center damaged. When unpacked from the box, the sculpture was discovered to have several pieces of rock separated from the base area. The Museum Collections Committee decided to acquire the sculpture for our collection despite its damaged condition. We do not have many pieces of contemporary Native American artwork, and the missing pieces do not distract from the overall aesthetic of the sculpture. The sculpture was placed in our collection with the hope that we would someday have the funds to repair the damage.

If you would like to donate to the collection’s conservation fund, please call 701.328.2666.