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!

From Idea to Interpretive Program: Creating My Mobile Mapping Program

Here at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan State Historic Site, we host a lot of schools annually. Aside from guided tours of the Interpretive Center and the fort, we create and present educational programs to allow students hands-on learning about some of our site’s topics. Back in 2019, I became a certified interpretive guide through the National Association for Interpretation. To gain my certification I had to create and present a program for our site. I am going to walk you through how I turned my initial idea into a program on mobile mapping.

Step 1: Where do I begin?

A library with many books on the shelves

The library at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center was a great place to find inspiration for my program.

There are a lot of topics we cover at the Interpretive Center such as the fur trade, agriculture, early Western artists, tribes of the Missouri River, and of course the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I did my best to sift through these to find a topic that struck a chord with me. One of the resources we have in our library is a book titled Atlas of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which contains copies of the maps of the expedition. I found it wildly interesting that the maps were as detailed as they were, even though the cartographers didn’t always have the necessary time to survey or measure things.

This is when I learned about the art of dead reckoning. When the members of the expedition set off, they only had access to maps of the Missouri River beginning in St. Louis, but these maps all essentially end just west of the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. The captains were tasked with improving on their current maps while also charting new ones all the way to the Pacific. That’s where dead reckoning comes in. A navigational tool that allows you to estimate your location from visual markers passed by during water travel, dead reckoning allows you to adjust your measurements based on your speed or time traveled. William Clark used this practice to create his maps and was incredibly accurate at it; his margin of error was only 60 miles for the entire expedition.

Step 2: I found a topic … now what?

Many tools, including a map, quill, ink, an other items used to make maps, sit atop a desk.

Replica of William Clark’s desk at Fort Mandan State Historic Site. Clark was the cartographer for the expedition and used dead reckoning to complete many of his maps.

I did some research and gave countless tours to Interpretive Center visitors discussing the ability of the expedition’s men to look at a location, make a sketch, and bury items such as lead, blacksmithing tools, food rations, or other items vital to their survival in caches at those locations. Dead reckoning map making seemed like a no-brainer once I more fully understood the topic. I thought to myself, “How fun would it be to have kids create maps for one another and make them find things?” Our average school age visitor is in the fourth grade, so this could be a great way to capture their attention while creating a scenario that allows them to put something they learn about on their field trip into practice.

Step 3: Time to pound out the deets.

A row of closed cabinets are shown on the left, and on the right is an image of one of the open cabinets with plastic totes filled with materials.

Our programming cabinets contain a treasure trove of interesting props.

Before I got too ahead of myself, I wanted to make sure this program was possible. Remember, I was only creating this to gain my certification. I didn’t have weeks to research how this would work; I had to have it ready to present before the course was over—a total of four days! So I went to the storage room in the fort’s visitor center, opened the doors to the “programming” cabinets, and sifted through our belongings. I knew my program needed to be done with minimal materials and also had some time restrictions. I wanted to create a game of survival based on the accuracy of the participants’ classmates. I didn’t have insight into the interpretive budget, but I wanted to make it doable for future use. I found some copies of the maps from the expedition in the props cabinet to use as a reference as well as clipboards to hold blank pieces of paper for the participants to create their own content.

Step 4: Now the foundation is laid, it’s time to start building.

A handmade map example with many rectangles

Mock maps produced for my interpretive program on mobile mapping.

Since the program dealt with a component of navigation, I decided the fort’s front lawn would be the best location for it. While it wasn’t possible to have the prospective participants get in a boat to simulate dead reckoning on water, I could have them moving away or toward a marked location to create their dead reckoning map.

I then had to figure out how participants would understand the importance of accuracy when it came to caching items for the return trip. I realized the only way to facilitate the search would be to split the participants into two groups: map makers and item finders. I would have the map makers work with time restrictions, while the item finders lingered at a distance. Once the map makers ran out of time, the item finders would then be given the maps and told to search for the hidden items, which were key to their survival. If they were not successful in finding the items in the allotted time, the item finders would unfortunately perish in the game.

Step 5: Can I actually pull this off?

One adult and many students stand inside and around the wooden poles of a tipi that's setup without the covering.

Our interpreters love hosting students and sharing their knowledge of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Now I had to have the other aspiring interpreters in my class participate in my program to gain my certification. I had one group go out into the fort’s visitor center while the second group hid their items in the classroom. I then gave them one minute to survey the room and four minutes to draw a map without looking up. The first group of interpreters came back into the room and were handed the maps from the second group. They were given one minute to find the hidden items based on their opposing group’s maps; the goal was to find the hidden items needed to survive. None of them were able to find them.

While I created this program for a certification, we use aspects of it to this day at the Interpretive Center and at Fort Mandan. Unfortunately due to the pandemic, we weren’t able to run the program during the 2020 and 2021 summer seasons, but I have been developing it into an online program to deliver to schools during virtual field trips. Since we are currently in our off-season, we are hard at work on content for the upcoming 2022 summer season. In addition to my mobile mapping program, we are also adapting existing programs on the fur trade, the expedition, and Native American sports and games into virtual presentations, as well as creating new programs that can be delivered both virtually and in-person on topics such as plant and animal identification.

We look forward to welcoming your school group soon!

Recent Donations: A Look Back on the Final Acquisitions of 2021

Welcome to 2022! It’s a time for new beginnings, new resolutions, and … new exhibits! That’s right, the collections and exhibit crew at the State Historical Society of North Dakota recently installed a new exhibit at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck.

The exhibit title is Recent Donations. Five curators chose a selection of items that were donated to the museum collections within the last two years, and they are now on exhibit through November 2022. In this spirit, I’d like to share with you a few more items that we acquired at the tail end of 2021.

One of the last donations received by the museum collection in 2021 was an assortment of Tupperware. Tupperware is a great example of a modern item that is a huge part of North Dakota culture but doesn’t always make it into museums. The donor sold Tupperware starting in the early 1990s, but her collection dates back even earlier. (I don’t know about you, but I can all but see the potluck noodle salad in the green bowls in the image below.)

An array of tupperware products, including a set of salt and pepper shakers, bowls, a toy, and more.

Nothing says North Dakota potluck like a fetching assortment of Tupperware. SHSND PAR-2021124

Meanwhile, this Melissa & Doug brand toy hammer has served a dual historical purpose that prompted its acceptance into the collection. It’s one of the most contemporary toys that we have acquired. But in an ironic twist, it also served as a gavel during parliamentary proceedings by state Rep. Corey Mock at an online legislative meeting in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mock used this hammer to open a Legislative Information Technology Committee meeting, held remotely on June 4, 2020.

A wooden gavel with a red handle

This children’s toy pulled double duty at North Dakota Legislative Assembly committee meetings in 2020 and 2021. SHSND 2021.65

Committee chairmen or chairwomen are usually provided a gavel when using the committee meeting rooms at the state Capitol in Bismarck, but since Mock was attending this particular hybrid meeting from home, he drafted this toy hammer belonging to his then-3-year-old son into service. When he offered this item to the museum collection, Mock reflected, “With a few raps on my standing desk, this Melissa & Doug play hammer was transformed into a parliamentary magic wand.” The hammer was subsequently used as a meeting gavel for several legislative meetings over the course of 2020 and 2021 before being donated to the State Historical Society.

Another contemporary artifact donated in late 2021 was this dress. The donor made it for her 8-year-old daughter in 2016-2017. Blue fabric was added to the skirt as the girl grew taller, allowing it to remain a favorite dress for a few years. This frock is a great example of a recent item whose story can be told not only by the person donating it but also by the physical changes made to the object itself.

A red dress with a section of purple across the bust and blue across the bottom with purple flowers throughout hangs from a metal hanger

The skirt of this handmade dress was lengthened with blue fabric to accommodate a growing girl. SHSND 2021.60

We appreciate our North Dakota citizens who offer us interesting family or personal items to add to the state’s museum collection. Items that are accepted by our staff into the collection help tell the state’s ongoing story for future generations.

Currently the State Museum is looking for additional contemporary items to add to the museum collection. Check out our list of desired items and fill out a questionnaire to have your donation considered by the Museum Collections Committee.

We are so excited to see what is in store for the collection in 2022!