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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!

Chris Dorfschmidt's blog

Creating Mind-blowing, Memorable Experiences

When I taught school, it was part of my first-day routine to ask my students if any of them liked history. The complete lack of raised hands taught me that there was no point in asking. I was working at a private boarding school with students from all over the country, and not even one of them liked history or was at least willing to admit it.

If you had asked me in high school, I would not have raised my hand either. I was in college when I discovered my love of history. What changed? The presentation.

When it comes to middle and high school history, there is an emphasis on rote memorization and the regurgitation of facts. I understand why. Teachers have a set of standards they are supposed to achieve and not a lot of time to reach them. To accomplish these goals, teachers must omit chunks of history like the entire Gilded Age. (According to state standards, nobody needs to know about the Gilded Age — unless you end up managing the Chateau de Mores.) The syllabus for my world history class included the impressive statement that we would cover 40,000 years of history in 36 weeks. This was like taking a 700-page book and adapting it to a 90-minute film. At best, you are only scratching the surface of the story.

History is a social science, or as I would tell my students, it is a skill set. It is about looking at sources and developing your interpretation about what happened. When you focus on the skills and the analysis rather than striving to check items off a list, then you can dive into the parts of history that are fascinating, mind-blowing, or odd. The elements of history that make the topic fun. If you have ever seen a student’s reaction to learning that England and Spain went to war over an ear, then you know what I mean.

black and white comic of The War of Jenkins' Ear

State historic sites can have the same presentation problem. There is not enough time to cram in all the fascinating information that staff have spent countless hours researching into a short visit. Staff can suffer from a mindset that we have to tell you everything, or we are not doing our jobs. While lots of accurate information, facts, and stories will fascinate some visitors, for others, too much information is not a compelling experience.

Who do you think is more likely to go to a museum, young adults or senior citizens? The answer seems obvious, and most would assume that museums are for the older generation and don’t fit the lifestyle of the tech-savvy younger generations. But according to a 2018 study conducted by Wilkening Consulting, young adults are 50 percent more likely to visit a museum than older adults.1 There are several reasons for this, but a leading reason is that they visited a museum or site as a kid and had a memorable experience.

Inforgraphic of Museum Visitation Rates

Part of my job as state historic sites manager is trying to figure out what makes a memorable experience. It is a difficult task as there is no magic formula. There are a multitude of ways that people experience a site. From the moment a visitor pulls into a site, they are already experiencing it. Some issues are easy to address, such as making sure that the site is well maintained and that the staff is friendly and knowledgeable. The tricky part is when you try to take it to the next level. Our Hands-on History program is adding opportunities for visitors to touch, try, experiment, and play with historical items, clothes, and games. We are also looking at new technology such as augmented reality and smart speakers and how we can leverage that technology to create new and exciting ways to interact with our sites and exhibits.

Chris Dorfschmidt showing girl rocket craft project

And sometimes it is just about finding what makes a site cool. My nephew got to visit the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site with me as part of the 10th anniversary as a state historic site this summer. After getting to go 50 feet underground and seeing the art on the walls, he insisted on buying a t-shirt, and wore it almost every day he was at the family lake cabin and on the first day of school. Why? So that people would ask him about it, and he could share the story of his memorable experience.


Internships as Learning Opportunities at the Chateau de Mores

Last summer the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site had the pleasure of welcoming Quinn Rick from Dordt College (Sioux Center, Iowa) as an intern. As part of this internship, Quinn’s supervising professor, Dr. Paul Fessler, made a trip to Medora to check in on him. Our work with Quinn impressed Dr. Fessler, and he told Quinn that not many interns are so lucky. Our success with Quinn has to do with my philosophy on what an internship is. It is a pretty simple philosophy: an internship is a learning experience.

Young gentleman holding a screwdriver and working on an exhibit case

Chateau Intern Quinn Rick working on ammunitions exhibit case.

It is all too common for companies or organizations to look at an intern as free labor or grunt labor. Interns fetch coffee and tackle the tasks that nobody else wants—the idea of “paying one’s dues.” The truth is that internships are about learning how to do a job. My background is in education. To me, my time student teaching was my internship. One of the best things that my cooperating teacher ever did for me was to hand the reins of the class over to me. I had done observation with him, and he wanted me to have the experience of teaching the class. On the first day, he introduced himself and then turned the class over to me. For the next 16 weeks, I was the teacher. I will always credit this experience with my classroom success.

I wanted to give Quinn that same experience. I tried to train him to take my job.1 My job does not require me to fetch coffee for anyone, so I was not going to ask him to fetch coffee. I do clean the bathrooms and take out the trash in Chimney Park, and Quinn got to spend some time working with me on that. As we schlepped bags of refuse to the dumpster, I told Quinn that this was my site. How it looks and how visitors experience it is on me.

Table covered in boxes of items and tools

Quinn's work table

But unlike my cooperating teacher, I could not just throw Quinn the keys and say, “It’s your site now, I will be back in September for it.” There are some things that he was not ready to handle on his own, but I did not shy away from teaching him these tasks. Instead of having him fill out the daily deposits and purchase orders, I went through them with him. I included him in meaningful conversations about site management and had him sit in on meetings. He went with me to a city council meeting and talked to me about how we handle all the difficult parts of the job.

I have always been a jack-of-all-trades, and it means that I do a little bit of everything around the site. For that reason, Quinn did too. He gave tours of the Chateau, helped with inventory in the store, covered lunch breaks, and worked on other projects. Quinn helped with public relations and helped with the creation of Augmented Reality experiences in the gallery. He got to see other sites like the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum, and the Billings County Museum. At each of these places, he got to talk to the folks who work there. They discussed the challenges facing their sites and the work that they do to overcome them.

Two display cases of ammunition showing two different ways the objects were displayed

Ammunitions exhibit case at the start of the season (left) and end of the project (right)

We wanted Quinn to leave here with an experience that he could put on his resume that was truly impressive. His big assignment was the reorganization of an ammunitions exhibit case that we have not opened in decades. He had to catalog the items, document his process, make decisions on what steps he needed to take to update the exhibit, and write up artifact labels. For this project, we also sent Quinn to Bismarck to work with Jenny Yearous, State Historical Society curator of collections. She taught him about various preservation techniques and how to handle artifacts properly. He worked with Genia Hesser, curator of exhibits, on solutions for making the case better. Quinn identified and organized the artifacts in the cabinet by category, removed excess artifacts, and created a list of needed labels to be printed. After putting his new skills to use, Quinn made the exhibit case look great, and we are proud of all his hard work.

Two young gentlemen working together to open case

Quinn and Interpreter Jesse Whumaker work together to open the ammunitions exhibit case

In the ten weeks that Quinn was with us, we threw a lot of stuff at him, and he handled it well. He was a valuable member of our team last summer. As our site moves forward, I hope to see us offer more internship opportunities. There are many projects that the staff and I want to get done out here. We are continually striving to have the best site. We have some pretty ambitious goals, and they are going to create some great opportunities for future interns. If you or someone you know is interested in interning at the Chateau de Mores, feel free to contact me at cdorfschmidt@nd.gov for more information.

1 This post was written when Chris Dorfschmidt was Site Supervisor at the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site. On April 1, 2019, Chris became a Historic Sites Regional Manager for the State Historical Society. He currently oversees staff and operations at the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site, as well as various other sites across North Dakota.