nd.gov - The Official Portal for North Dakota State Government
North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

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" 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.

Five Things You Never Knew About Working in a Museum

1. Hollywood, as always, gets it wrong.
This may come as a surprise to our faithful readers, but movies do not accurately reflect real life — especially when it comes to museum work. Our dinosaurs and dioramas do not come alive at night and terrorize the security guards. Well, maybe they do, but the security guards aren’t telling. The archaeologists do not get to take epic adventures in which they both defeat Nazis and recover priceless artifacts, but I’m sure they wish they could when they’re filling out yet another site form.

2. Fashionable socks are a must.
There are a surprising number of times when you go shoeless working at a museum. Exhibits need regular attention such as changing a light bulb, dusting, placing an object, or removing a candy wrapper that someone threw in. Often this means physically climbing into a display space, but to safeguard the objects and keep from tracking in debris, the shoes have to come off. And you don’t want to be the person with mismatched socks.

3. Some days it’s just gross.
One day an agencywide email was sent that said, roughly, “Whose thawed bison head is in the freezer!?” We have a chest freezer for keeping specimens for the collections or killing bugs that sometimes hitch a ride on artifacts. The frozen bison head would have been okay. Except the freezer broke.

Exhibit-quality bird poop

Exhibit-quality bird poop.

4. We use skills we never knew we needed.
Just a few of the stranger jobs the exhibit team has been tasked with include: assembling a windmill indoors, assessing the accuracy of fake bird poop, changing the tire on a Ford Model T, moving an entire mastodon skeleton 500 feet, debating the level of gore acceptable in a digital dinosaur battle, and researching where to purchase buffalo scent.

5. We get to work with AMAZING things.
Taken as a whole, museum collections are impressive —their size, scope, and age —and to some extent it becomes routine, working with these objects daily. However, there are pieces that give goosebumps — like one of the original Folios of Shakespeare’s plays, a thousands-of- years-old Phoenician tablet, or the broken gun carried by a follower of Sitting Bull — and it’s these that make you think, “I am SO lucky to work in a museum.”

Even when there’s an oozing bison skull in the freezer.