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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!

Genia Hesser's blog

Producing "The Horse in North Dakota" Exhibit: Part 2

It’s been four months since I last blogged about The Horse in North Dakota exhibit and behind-the-scenes work is “galloping” along. One of the most important things we’ve learned is that the chance to use horse- related puns isn’t one you can say “neigh” to!

Telling the Story in Three Dimensions

In my last blog I compared an exhibit to telling a story. The biggest difference between a story you’d read in a book and the story you follow in an exhibit is one of dimension. In a book you turn pages to progress through the narrative. In an exhibit a visitor literally moves through the story as they walk from one part of an exhibit to the next.

Rather than dividing the story into chapters, I divide an exhibit gallery into topic areas. I start with a “bubble” plan to figure out how much floor space each topic needs and how they connect to each other. In the beginning it looks like this:

Plan showing layout of sections for the exhibit

To continue the reading metaphor, most people read books starting with Chapter One and continue sequentially to the end. Not having chapters, an exhibit must provide physical guides to show visitors how to move through the story. So after the bubble plan, the next step is to put in walls or dividers.

Floor plan for exhibit showing where dividers will be

The walls suggest a path for visitors to follow and create the suggestion of small rooms that contain topics – almost like a chapter contains a discrete part of a story.

At the same time we are working on the layout we are also developing content – all the parts of the exhibit that convey information. Content can be written text, photographs, videos, audio, hands-on interactives, and the objects, of course. In exhibit design, we have the unique challenge of figuring out how to put different types of content together so they succinctly and clearly convey the information.

For example, in the military section we’ll discuss the historic US Cavalry. Mounted cavalry had an advantage in war because they could move quickly over large distances. However, there still needed to be a means of communication. Before radios and cell phones there was the bugle.

This panel explains the bugle’s importance, gives visitors a chance to hear bugle calls, and shows what a mid-19th century bugler looked like.

Panel for the section Live by the Bugle

Notice the warm yellow and reddish colors at the top and bottom of the panel. If you refer back to the bubble plan, all of the panels in the “Horses at Work” bubble will use these colors. Other areas, such as “Evolution of the Horse” will have a different color scheme. In addition to the walls, color and graphic design indicate to visitors that they are encountering a new topic as they move through the exhibit.

I hope this brief behind-the-scenes look at exhibit development will add an extra layer of enjoyment when you come to experience The Horse in North Dakota. The exhibit opens on August 25, 2018.

Producing "The Horse" Exhibit: Part 1

Since the Governors Gallery in the ND Heritage Center & State Museum opened in November 2014, we’ve hosted a variety of traveling exhibits from nationally-recognized institutions such as the Smithsonian, NASA, and the Field Museum. It’s been an amazing opportunity to bring world-class exhibits to North Dakota to share with visitors. Now it’s our turn to showcase uniquely North Dakota objects and stories in an exhibit produced by the State Historical Society of North Dakota – The Horse.

Planning began over a year ago, and although we’ve got lots still to do, I thought I’d share some of the work we’ve done so far.


I like to think of an exhibit as a story that we tell to visitors. The objects and photos, the text visitors read, and the design all have to work together to communicate the narrative. An important component is what we call the graphic style. This includes assigning colors, choosing fonts, and selecting materials. Some choices are for practical reasons – is the font easily legible and are the materials safe for our artifacts? But we also consider subjective questions, such as what can we tell visitors about the exhibit before they read the first word of text?

Horses are often associated with stereotypes of the “wild west.” Although the era of cowboys and ranching is an important part of North Dakota’s horse story, our exhibit will start long before then – millions of years ago when early dog-sized horses roamed the forests of what would become North Dakota. Our design, therefore, had to speak to much more than rustic cowboy tropes.

We decided on a modern design that could be appropriate for all eras. The stylized horse shape can apply to the many species of horses and is also a nod to the horse drawings in Native American ledger art. The “swoops” in the font echo the horse’s mane and tail, and evoke the movement of a running horse. The bright colors will be used throughout the exhibit to indicate new themes and topics.

The Horse logo


The Governors Gallery is almost 5,000 square feet, which gives us the opportunity to showcase some of the larger objects from our collection. In The Horse exhibit we’ll be bringing out a few of our horse-drawn vehicles. One is the Petersburg fire engine. Made around 1914 by the Waterous Engine Works Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, it was purchased by the fire department of Petersburg, North Dakota. It was gifted to the State Historical Society in 1954 and boasts the original paint job.

Petersburg fire engine

If you’ve ever wondered what a “one-horse open sleigh” is, we’ll have one of those on display, too. This velvet-upholstered, cutter-style sleigh was originally owned by the Marquis de Mores.

Sleigh originally owned by the Marquis de Mores

Stay tuned for my next post in May, which will have more behind-the-scenes details about developing The Horse exhibit. The Horse opens July 14.