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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!

Guest Blogger's blog

The Off-Season

I get asked on a fairly regular basis what I do in the “off-season” at the mansion without all the summer tourists. This question always gets me a little riled up, mostly because I don’t have an off-season. We experience slower times, but we are never “off.” It may surprise you to learn that our largest audience does not consist of tourists. General visitation (our term for spontaneous visits during regular hours) only adds up to about a third of all the people that visit over the course of the year. In 2016, 6,400 people visited, and about 2,000 of those were general visits. The rest are people mostly from the Bismarck-Mandan community who come for events and private rentals, as well as a few school groups.

Johnathan Cempbell repairing banister

Site supervisor Johnathan Campbell repairing a detached banister finial. This finial has been reattached many times over the years. As people come around the corner they tend to pull on it.

So what do I do when it’s slow, and there are no people around? I clean and fix the wear and tear from all the hands on walls and feet on floors. Many people may not think of the mansion as a home, but that was its primary role for around 80 years, and that is what we preserve. Imagine what your home would look like after having a few thousand people come through it over the course of a year. Then envision having 10,000 fingers rubbing across your oak banister, and 1,000 kids using your bathroom. I’m guessing you wouldn’t let anyone touch the furniture, and you might wish you could lock the doors for a bit just so you could have a slow day or two (maybe three!) to clean. So if you come to the mansion and find the occasional speck of dirt on the floor or paint-chipped doors, please take it as a sign that the state’s historic governors’ home is well-loved by the community.

Johnathan Campbell vacuuming

Site supervisor Johnathan Campbell vacuuming dirt and melted ice from the hundreds of feet that have walked here since winter started.

And when I do get caught up on cleaning and maintenance, I go back to figuring out ways to get more people into the house so I can do it some more!

Guest Blogger: Johnathan Campbell

Johnathan CampbellJohnathan Campbell has been around the SHSND for around a quarter of a century. He has been the site supervisor for both the Former Governors’ Mansion, and Camp Hancock State Historic Sites for over a decade, and previous to that was the fossil preparator for the North Dakota State Fossil collection.

Museum Feedback Matters: How Visitor Comments Influence Dinosaur Battles and Chocolate

Comment Card: OMG, I Seriously Loved It! I'm going to come back everyday for the rest of my life. This museum changed my life. I love Shakespeare.

Visitor comment card at the State Museum, summer 2016

What’s the best time you’ve had in a museum? And what made that visit so awesome?

Part of our work in the Communications & Education Division is to find out what our visitors want and need to have the best (or most life changing) museum experience.

The late Governor Art Link once described the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum as “the people’s place.” Our division staff strives to keep his words in mind with everything we do. We focus on providing historically accurate, memorable, educational, and entertaining experiences for 230,000 people coming to this place each year. Quite simply, we want you to learn, have fun, and love museums.

Visitors of all ages and backgrounds come here to discover, to occupy kids for a few hours, to conduct academic research, to enjoy time with friends, to disconnect, to enjoy a program, to sip a latte in the café, or to come in from the cold. With so many motives for museum visits, we use research tools to help us understand what’s most important to you.

We conduct surveys, offer questionnaires during programs, conduct focus groups, compile community input, make comment cards available, and monitor what interests you on our websites and social media. That data helps us make informed decisions on future programs, exhibits, and even where our tourist brochures are placed. Your comments make a difference and shape the way we serve the public.

Here are a few key items that were collectively important to our 2016 visitors:

You requested more family activities. We provided more family friendly experiences and had an enthusiastic public response. The opening of the Treehouse exhibit for young visitors has provided fresh energy and laughter in the building. We added programs for toddlers and parents, new art activities, and more free family films. The Museum Division staff also enhanced a popular hands-on dinosaur interactive in the Geologic Time gallery featuring a T. rex battling a Triceratops. Your feedback caused us to stretch in new child-friendly ways, and we are grateful.

Family using the dinosaur interacitve and a comment card reading: It was so much fun. I beat my husband in the dinosaur game. My son enjoyed the animals.

You requested more traveling exhibits to bring the outside world into our state. “I can’t afford to travel, so I appreciate having national exhibits brought here,” wrote one commenter. We listened. In 2016, we offered the Smithsonian’s Green Revolution exhibit and Shakespeare’s First Folio exhibit. Teaser alert: Watch for the national Chocolate exhibit opening on May 27. Everything’s better with chocolate, museums included.

You wanted easy access to history content at your fingertips. Many of you have commented that our agency website is difficult to navigate. We agree, and we’re working on it. You’ll see a facelift in 2017. Meanwhile, our staff launched a new State Museum website to help tourists and locals better plan visits and experience parts of the museum virtually.

We discovered that our social media subscribers can’t get enough historic photos of blizzards. One December Facebook post reached over 220,000 people. Personal connections to history matter. We understand and will keep working to find and share historical stories and objects that have an impact.

Cars covered in snow up to their windows.

Cars parked in the Kirkwood Mall parking lot in Bismarck were covered in snow up to their windows during the April 1997 blizzard. SHSND 32228-02-10

Sometimes we can’t honor every request, like the suggestion of a grade schooler who let us know he would prefer a green John Deere tractor to the red Case ag cab on exhibit. But we do consider every request.

Card from museum visitor

Comment card: This is the best museum ever! I would come back to North Dakota JUST for this museum.

While we can’t change a life with every visit, we do promise to offer some pretty amazing moments of viewing rare fossils, a few shrieks of joy from our Treehouse toddlers, and some engaging ways to explore your own connections to North Dakota history—thanks to your helpful comments. As we begin 2017, I invite you to continue sharing questions and ideas.

Guest Blogger: Kim Jondahl

Kim JondahlKim is Director of the Communications & Education division. She oversees the division's programming, serves as the primary media contact, oversees branding strategies, writes and edits marketing and educational pieces, and coordinates partnerships with outside organizations.