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!

Jeff J. Person's blog

Cleaning Exhibits

What are some ways to make the best of a bad situation? How do we use the closing of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum to the advantage of everyone: the public; staff; and exhibit specimens and artifacts? We clean, of course! Not just everyday cleaning that happens whether the museum is open or closed, but “deep” cleaning that requires portions of the building to be closed off. Think of it as spring cleaning the dinosaurs!

The Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time was opened to the public in November of 2014. Since that time, thousands of visitors from around the globe have enjoyed and learned about these prehistoric beasts that once roamed the place we now call North Dakota. In March of 2020, the Heritage Center was closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was decided that staff should take advantage of this situation and do something we wouldn’t normally be able to do, or at least not do as easily. Large-scale cleaning of the exhibits is not a quick or easy task–not without disrupting the experience for visitors to a museum.

Deep cleaning can involve large equipment, loud noises, and lots of dirt and dust. Nevertheless, exhibits do need to get deep cleaned periodically, and after five years it was time to break out something a bit more powerful than the feather dusters.

Woman cleaning exhibits with a feather duster

Paleontologist Becky Barnes cleaning the Highgate Mastodon with a feather duster.

We gathered together all the equipment we thought we might need in the Geologic Time Gallery and got to work. With the help of a multi-speed leaf blower, an electric lift, and a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter vacuum, we were able to remove accumulated dust from very hard to reach places.

Man inside assembled dinosaur skeleton dusting with a handheld air blower

Man cleaning dinosaur skeleton with an air blower

Cleaning skeleton with air blower

left: cleaning the TRex. right: cleaning the Pteranodon

Getting into hard-to-reach places inside the Geologic Time Gallery exhibits to dust the skeletons. A multi-speed leaf blower on the lowest setting was used to remove most of the accumulated dust. HEPA vacuums were then used to suck up the material that rained down onto the exhibit bases and carpet of the gallery.

The amount of dust we removed was surprising, and everyone involved was happy the removed dust bunnies were not “raining” down on visitors.

All of the creatures on exhibit were treated to a dusting, with the taller and harder to reach areas benefiting more than the lower ones. From the large T. rex to the small, tree-climbing Plesiadapis, everything in the Geologic Time Gallery is now clean and ready for another five years of silently watching the parade of visitors stroll by below.

From the tip of the Pteranodon’s nose
To the end of the T. rex’s toes,
No one knows
How the dust bunny grows.

Moving Dakota, the Two-Ton Mummified Hadrosaur

On a snowy day in February 2008, the mummified hadrosaur Dakota arrived at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck without fanfare. It arrived in two large blocks and a few smaller packages. It had been trucked all the way from the NASA lab in southern California, where it had been CAT scanned.

We had to rent the largest forklift we could find in Bismarck to move the largest block (the body block) from the truck into the building. Despite this block weighing in excess of two tons, it was moved safely and without incident.

forlift moving dakota on a crate pallet in snowy landscape

Dakota being moved into the ND Heritage Center in 2008. The largest forklift we could rent in Bismarck had to be used to move the largest block of Dakota, the body block.

Dakota was then ushered down a long hallway into the paleontology lab, where paleontologists and specialists spent years removing hundreds of pounds of rock from the block encasing the never-before-seen dinosaur skin. A few years later, as work on the ND Heritage Center expansion began, Dakota was moved to a temporary home to keep it out of harm’s way. It retraced its path back down the same hallway it had travelled just a few years prior to a secondary lab next to the loading dock, where it had originally entered the building.

Over the next year, even more rock was removed from the large body block while we waited for the time to be right to move Dakota once again. That time came during summer 2013. Dakota travelled from its temporary home in the secondary paleo lab, once again down the same hallway.

six people moving dinomummy

Moving Dakota in 2013. This trip would take the block upstairs and into the hallway for exhibit.

This time, it was only to the freight elevator, a few short feet from where it once sat for nearly five years while specialists chipped away at rock, exposing fossilized skin. After a quick trip up the elevator, it was slowly moved toward its home in the Corridor of History outside the State Museum’s Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time.

six people moving dinomummy into place in gallery

Getting the final placement of Dakota for exhibit correct. This was done during the final touches on the ND Heritage Center expansion.

Uncovered dinomummy on display behind glass case

View of Dakota on exhibit from 2013 to 2019.

For the next six years Dakota sat on exhibit where tens of thousands of visitors a year gazed upon its exposed dinosaur skin, 66 million years in the making.

Our goal is to help the public best understand how important and rare Dakota is. Because of the skin preservation, Dakota has taught and is teaching us a great deal about dinosaurs we didn’t previously know. In order to better educate the public, we needed to revamp the Dakota exhibit. That means the larger body block needed to move . . . again. Many changes are happening to the Dakota exhibit, the largest of which has been the removal of the body block from display.

forklift moving dinomummy

Hauling Dakota down the ND Heritage Center & State Museum hallway toward the freight elevator. Wheels were permanently attached to Dakota to make it possible to haul with the forklift.

In late October 2019, the large body block was removed from exhibit and carefully wheeled down to the North Dakota State Fossil Collection room in the ND Heritage Center & State Museum lower level.

team pushing dinomummy

Dakota coming out of the freight elevator, on its way toward the paleontology lab and collections.

Team moving dinomummy down a long hallway

The last leg of Dakota’s journey was down this long hallway and into the paleontology lab.

The tail block, arm, and foot pieces will be moved back upstairs into a newly revamped exhibit that will be unveiled in the coming months.

Please come and visit us in spring 2020 and see all the changes to the Dakota exhibit.