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!

Chris Dorfschmidt's blog

Ask-an-Expert Program Connects North Dakota Studies and State Historic Sites

When I first started with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, one of the tasks given to me was connecting the Chateau de Mores to North Dakota Studies, an online resource for students, teachers, and lifelong learners that explores our state’s people, places, events and fascinating history. It was an assignment that never made much sense to me. Good interpretive programs highlight a resource, whether it is a tree, a historic house, artifact, or just the site itself. My assignment was making North Dakota Studies the resource when it should be the Chateau. It was emphasizing the wrong thing. So what was the fix? It seems simple; we needed to make the sites a resource for North Dakota Studies. It needed to be something that helped teachers and connected to themes found within the North Dakota Studies curriculum. While this task has many obstacles, the solution has us excited.

Currently, our sites serve teachers as a field trip destination. Unfortunately, history does not always happen in convenient locations. Some sites are remote, and while we can serve students who live close to the site, what about those who don’t?

Fort Totten Education Day

Photo of Fort Totten Site Supervisor Kyle Nelson teaching a session on archery as part of the Whitestone Hill Education Day.

In a past blog, I mentioned that we were developing virtual field trips at sites. It is a good idea. How else will we get students from Abercrombie to experience a site like Fort Buford on the opposite side of the state? Plus, without the travel requirement, students can participate in several of these programs with different sites across the state. But there are problems to be solved. The biggest holdup is the limited internet at sites. It is not much of a field trip if all you can see is the office area. You want to be able to go into the underground capsule at Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility at the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site. Plus, not all the buildings are heated. I once did a Facebook Live video from inside the Chateau in the middle of winter. I was shivering by the end.

MYCIC Education Day demonstration of catching birds

Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center Site Supervisor Joseph Garcia leads a group of students through a hands-on activity focusing on how biologists learn about bird habitats from catching birds. This program was part of the Project WET education day held at the site.

With the problems identified, what is the solution? While we still want to host virtual field trips eventually, right now we could look at a different kind of virtual offering. Currently, sites are working on a program that we call Ask-an-Expert. We are fortunate to have staff that is passionate about their site. They read books and articles and use downtime to conduct research. Some have even translated books from other languages to learn more about an aspect of their site. Allowing students to ask these experts questions could be a powerful interaction for the classroom. There is a genuine cool factor in getting to speak to an expert, and it always seems to carry more weight. Sure, I could teach a class about space, but it would mean so much more coming from an astronaut.

Here is how it would ideally work. Our sites have produced a list of themes related to their sites that tie into the North Dakota Studies curriculum. Teachers can use this list to select a site that fits what they are covering in class. After making a reservation with our site staff, the teacher will introduce the topic to the class. The students craft their questions, and the teacher sends them in advance to the site staff. Having the questions will allow the site staff to pull together resources such as photos, videos, and artifacts that they can use to answer these questions. It also guarantees that students will have questions to ask. On the day of the meeting, students get to ask their questions to the site staff who answer them using their knowledge, historical accounts, and the resources gathered.

Screenshot of a Chateau de Mores Facebook live video

Screenshot from one of the Chateau de Mores Facebook Live videos, but a great example of how an Ask-an-Expert program would look to students.

We are excited by the potential of this program. We have done a few test runs so far, and the results were fantastic. One of the most impressive things was that in the first wave of questions, we would often see basic things asked, but while they were getting those answers, the teacher was writing down questions that were coming up during the responses. This second wave of questions, when asked, often showed some historical analysis that was happening in the minds of the students. They were thinking critically about what they are hearing. A program like this encourages students to think about causality (Why did we need to spread out the launch control facilities in the missile field?) and conflicting accounts (Did the Marquis de Morès kill Riley Luffsey?). We want sites to inspire critical thinking, and this program helps achieve that goal.

We originally planned to do a beta test of this program this past spring, but COVID-19 changed that. We are looking to try a beta test this fall and roll it out in full this winter. We hope to work out any issues and get feedback from teachers. While there may be a fee for this program in the future, participating in the beta will be free of charge. If you teach North Dakota Studies and are willing to give this program a try, please feel free to reach out to me, and I will help connect you to our experts.

Painting Patina: Aging items for Stutsman County Courthouse Civics Exhibit

Disclaimer: No antiques or artifacts were harmed in the making of this project.

When I am not working at my job of helping our amazing state historic sites, I like to spend my time engaging in my hobby of painting. I don’t paint on canvas, nor do I consider myself an artist. I build and paint models, miniatures, and dioramas. It is a challenging hobby where you attempt to paint a chunk of plastic, metal, or resin to make it appear as a realistic representation of an actual item or person. Occasionally, I even get the opportunity to apply my hobby skills to my job. If you follow the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse Facebook page, you might recall a post about my repainting the label on a Burrow’s Adding Machine that is part of the new civics exhibit. I also painted the handle on some surveyor’s tape and the finial on a couple of flag poles. My colleague and fellow Historic Sites Manager Rob Hanna had one more challenge for me. One of the pieces he purchased for the Stutsman Courthouse civics exhibit was a double inkwell. When it came in the mail, it did not look that great. It was shiny, full of flashing (remnants of the casting process) and some of the detail was missing. While the flashing was easy to remove with a metal file, adding a patina to it would require some thought.

silver artifact

This is the inkwell after the flashing is removed and before weathering.

When trying to paint a part of a miniature that represents metal, there are two techniques used: true metallic metal (TMM) and non-metallic metal (NMM). TMM is when you use a paint that has metallic flake in it. Thanks to the flake in the paint, it has a reflective look that mimics metal. It tends to be an easier technique to learn. NMM is using paint that lacks the metallic flake, so the painter has to create gradients, shading, and highlights with multiple thin layers that create the illusion of reflective metal. It can be a hard concept to wrap your mind around.


The knight is an example of TMM, and the thief is an example of NMM. Photo from the Bird with a Brush blog.

I bring up these techniques to explain what comes next. A couple of years ago, I learned a new recipe to add shading to my TMM painting. It is about creating a wash---paint thinned down to a watery consistency and painted over the figure to pool in the cracks and crevices---and then using it to weather the metal to make it look old and used. To make my wash, I am using several different paints that each have a specific purpose. Blue liner is the main ingredient in this recipe. Painters use liner paints to separate different colors on a model and have a specific consistency that fits that purpose.

ink bottles

For this recipe, the blue and brown liners add color to wash. I need to add a metallic paint to mix to help maintain the appearance of metal. I tried to find one in my collection that would match the metal of the inkwell, and I settled on polished silver. The last component is a gloss varnish that is an acrylic resin. Once the wash dries, it strengthens it so that it can stand up to cleaning and helps preserve the luminosity of the metal. Once I have these paints mixed, I add drops of water until the paint has the right consistency.

ink pallet

If you look at the lip of the pallet, you can see how the paint flowing back into the well is thin and translucent. That is the consistency that I want.

With my wash complete, I did a simple test to see how it would work on the inkwell. I chose a spot that was small and hidden away on the back of the inkwell. I applied the wash on a section, and then used a paper towel to wipe off the excess. What is left behind is a shaded metal where the raised portions pop out from the darker crevices.

inkwell closeup

I tested a section on the back of the inkwell.

After the success of the test, I began applying the process on the rest of the inkwell. I started at the bottom and worked my way to the top.

inkwell closeup

I applied the wash in small sections. Using a large brush, I slopped it on as I tried to make sure that if filled all the cracks and crevices.

inkwell closeup w ink

I then used a paper towel to wipe the wash off the raised areas.

I continued this around the entire inkwell. Most places required two coats. In areas where I wanted to emphasize the shadow, I would wipe off less of the wash.

inkwell wide

In-progress photo where you can see that the base of the inkwell now has a slight blueish tone, and the details stand out better than the upper parts of the inkwell.

Completed inkwell patina

Completed progress on the inkwell.

Overall, I am thrilled with how this turned out. If you want to get a closer look at this inkwell, you can find it amongst the other beautiful items in the new civics exhibit at the Stutsman County Courthouse.

final product