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!

Ann Crews Melton's blog

Crafting Exhibit Text: Compelling, Vivid, and Short

What makes compelling exhibit text? I just employed one strategy: opening with a question. Well-crafted exhibits tell stories — both visually through artifacts and photos, and with words by using vivid, concise language to convey colorful, informative histories to our audience.

Ideally, you want the viewer to pause long enough to look, read, reflect, and feel a connection with your topic. Does that anecdote remind them of something a family member told them, or that artifact look just like one in their grandparents’ house? Or, does the exhibit allow the audience to enter a world far removed from their own — either by going back in time, or by exploring a different culture — and yet find a connection through empathizing with a story character, or just from seeing the look in a photographed person’s eyes?

Group of 4 people dressed in 1920s clothing

One of my favorite photos of State Historical Society staff, Sept. 5, 1926. Can you relate to the people in the photo? What stories does this image tell? SHSND SA 00200-6x8-00287

When I travel, I like to stop in museums for exhibit text ideas. In this label from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, look at the last paragraph. What is more compelling, saying, “Most of the gold was stolen by thieves,” or, as they do, “Most of the gold was hacked away by plunderers who desecrated the burial”?

museum panel with photo and text

In 2018 I viewed the fantastic Stampede exhibit at the Denver Art Museum depicting a broad range of animals in art. In this label titled “Menagerie,” the text is concise, engaging, and clear — and also translated into Spanish for additional audience inclusion.

bilingual museum panel

Currently, our State Museum’s Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples features select quotes and audio of several Indigenous languages. In a similar vein, I loved this painting title at Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, but can’t imagine routinely proofreading text in four languages (Catalan, Spanish, English, and French).

Miro Painting

Miro painting museum panel

This fall I was privileged to draft the exhibit text for our current Prairie Post Office exhibit in the James E. Sperry Gallery. This exhibit is unique in that it is based on a book by the same name, written by K. Amy Phillips and Steven R. Bolduc, published by NDSU Press. The exhibit follows the basic structure of the book and incorporates contemporary photography by Wayne Gudmundson, but also adds artifacts and archival photos and whittles the book text way, way down into digestible exhibit labels. Each chapter received about 150 words, not much longer than this paragraph. I tried to take the major themes of the book and add questions, examples, and surprising facts and ideas I learned thanks to the authors’ research.

Post Office museum graphics panel

Wall of museum info panels

Exhibit panels from The Prairie Post Office, on view through 2021.

Finalizing the exhibit text was a team effort: members of our editorial and design team, exhibits team, collections staff, and the book authors all reviewed the text and offered feedback. Just like sustaining life in rural communities — the major theme of this exhibit — creating an exhibit takes a village.

I invite you to come view The Prairie Post Office, spend time (briefly) reading, and let us know what you think.

From First Draft to Polished Publication: The Life Cycle of "North Dakota History" Articles

Government-funded marionette theater. An iconic photograph of Sitting Bull. Fargo’s bootlegging underworld. The first World War I monument in the nation.

What do these have in common? They are all are captured in riveting detail in North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains, published for more than a century by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. “What?” you think to yourself. “The State Historical Society has a legit academic journal?” Yes indeed, covering a wealth of northern plains history since 1906. I wrote about surveying our journal audience last year, but to better explain what distinguishes the journal from a general interest magazine, I want to walk you through the publication process — from selecting manuscripts and photos to the polished, printed glossy that arrives in your mailbox (or can, if you sign up!).

three differend North Dakota History journal covers

1. Manuscript selection
As an academic journal, we have an open call for manuscript submissions, and our staff selects promising ones for anonymous peer review. This means the journal editor, Pam Berreth Smokey, finds subject-area experts to review the text and offer feedback on whether the article meets our guidelines — including source citations — and on potential improvements. The reviewers don’t know the author’s name, and the author never learns the reviewers’ names. Reviewers could be from North Dakota or any state (it’s a secret!). We look at their areas of expertise to select the best match for the topic.

2. Revision process
If the article is accepted by reviewers, the author revises according to reviewer feedback, as well as feedback from Pam, me (the associate editor), and other knowledgeable staff. We edit all manuscripts using the Chicago Manual of Style (including source citations) and maintain a style guide for local North Dakota terms as well.

Men standing outside building. Two men hold a sign together that says To Hell With The Kaiser

Burleigh County men prior to entrainment during World War I, March 29, 1918. Look at their faces, their style, their ages. Do you think the Kaiser got the message? SHSND SA E0071-00001

3. Photo selection
We ask the author for image suggestions to accompany the article, since photos, illustrations, and newspaper scans add visual interest and can tell a story all their own. Our photo archivist, Sharon Silengo, also digs through the State Archives to find related images in our collection. When we need to look further afield, I request photo files and reprint permission from other archives and libraries across the country. We ask authors to draft image captions, often supplemented by the stellar research Sharon unearths.

Page from journal with many edits written on it in pen and marker

4. Layout and proofing
The journal’s text and images are sent to a design contractor, who uses a template created by our internal new media specialists. In addition to the main feature articles, we compile book reviews (also written by academics) and short features written by State Historical Society staff that highlight objects from our collections. The design and proofing phase often goes through many (many, many) rounds, including author review and input from our division director and State Historical Society director.

5. Printing, reading, and acclaim
When the proof receives unanimous approval, Pam sends it to the printer! She and I check press proofs one more time before nervously signing off and collapsing into our piles of revisions and notes. We try our best to eliminate any errors to maintain a standard as close to perfect as humanly possible. Not to mention being attractive and highly readable — as testified to by winning the Mountain Plains Museums Association design award two years in a row.

Three women standing in front of copper wall. The middle woman is holding an award.

Photo archivist Sharon Silengo, North Dakota History editor Pam Berreth Smokey, and Ann with the 2017 MPMA Publication Design Award.

Luckily for you, the most recent issue of the journal is available now, and you can read featured articles online. If you are a researcher and writer of North Dakota history, consider submitting your original work. And for everyone who loves to learn about this region and its complex history — peruse our archives! We are looking forward to the next 100+ years.