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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!

Jessica Rockeman's blog

5 Surprising Stories about Exhibits at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum

1. That’s made out of butterflies?

Friend to gardeners, ecotourists, and second-grade science projects, the butterfly is the flagship for biodiversity in your front yard. Butterflies are an essential part of the food web and plant pollination. And artwork, it turns out.

Look closely at this portrait and you will see it’s not just a silhouette of a woman — the piece is made entirely out of butterfly wings.

silhouette of a woman made out of butterfly wings

2. The most dangerous animal in the museum is what?

When museum bloggers discuss dangerous animals, the usual suspects come to mind: bears, mountain lions, and venomous snakes are certainly to be respected in the North Dakota wilderness. Relatively few people think of the bison, which was perhaps the biggest killer of humans even 500 years ago. Imagine being part of a hunting party, crouching in the grass, while thousands of 2,000-pound bison, strong enough to plow snow with their faces, graze a few feet away from you. Horses were reintroduced to North America in 1519, and that made the bison hunt faster, but not necessarily safer.

Family of three taxidermied bison

The point is bison are tough. Our taxidermy mounts have been on display since 1925. Depending on your age, you might remember them from when the museum was housed in the Liberty Memorial Building, the ND Heritage Center & State Museum constructed in the 1980s, or as they are displayed today in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples. They are beautiful to appreciate, but it’s still advisable to keep your distance.

Family of three taxidermied bison in the 1930s, 1980s, and 2019

3. Why does your exhibit contain arsenic?

I am not a museum preparator or conservator. I don’t even play one on TV. But common sense tells me if the word “arsenic” is involved, it would be a good idea to keep my distance. Arsenic used to be a mainstay in industries like embalming, agriculture, and even cosmetics. It was also a champion bug killer, so it was used heavily in taxidermy until people realized that it wasn’t very good for your health.

Taxidermy specimens have a lot of uses for researchers and are great tools for interpretation and education. But when the sign says “don’t touch” — we really mean it.

Sign stating that Natural History specimens may contain ARSENIC - Please do not touch! There are taxidermy animals in the background.

4. Why do you freeze the artifacts?

Some things don’t come in the door dangerous; they just get that way over time. Silver nitrate film is a good example of when good things go bad. When State Archives staff open a box of old film and get a strong whiff of vinegar from the silver nitrate, they take action to preserve the negatives. This is done through digitization, scanning, and good, old-fashioned refrigeration.

Why store things in a freezer? Without cold storage, materials can deteriorate rapidly. Silver nitrate film can spontaneously combust, which is pretty high on the crisis scale. With cold storage, negatives can remain unchanged and accessible for many centuries.

Sarah Walker bravely standing beide our cold storage unit

5. Just how many guns do you have?

While museum security is not as exciting as actor Ben Stiller would have you believe, remember that what you see at a museum is only about 10 percent of the actual collection (there many reasons for that, but that’s another blog post). Most of the museum’s gun collection, for example, is kept in a gun vault. There are muskets, cannons, pistols, guns from 19th-century campaigns and both World Wars. There’s even a flame thrower in the arsenal. (When the zombies come, we’re ready.)

Case displaying many guns

Top Reasons to Redesign Your Website

We all have things we hold onto for far too long. Clean-up projects hit the trifecta of misery.

Redesigning a website is a series of time-consuming chores that are psychologically, emotionally, and financially overwhelming. And it doesn’t help that most of us hardly know where to start-it’s much easier to convince yourself that technically, the site still functions, right? With our dedicated education team, we had the difficult conversation about our North Dakota Studies website and made the call to redesign it.

Website redesign is not a small task, but let’s face it. You probably need it. Why?

1. To create a better user experience.
User or customer experience (UX or CX) are industry jargon for what gets down to the question of who is your customer? When we began the revamp of the ndstudies.gov website, we took a hard look at our numbers. How many students does ND serve? How are our users finding us?

Number of students in North Dakota: 108,000 (8 to 10 thousand per grade)

74% of traffic to the ND Studies website is organic

2. Your website isn’t working.
Think of how many screens you encounter in a day. Phones, smart tvs, tablets, smart watches, laptops or notebooks, desktops, smartboards if you’re in a classroom. If you haven’t looked at your website across multiple devices, you have work to do. There might also be places where you want to reorganize or change terms that make sense to your industry, but aren’t that common outside of the silo to better serve your users. And keep an eye on the horizon. Have you thought about how smart speakers might affect your site traffic?

ND Studies Website on three different devices

Have you thought about it? Be honest.

3. Haul stuff away to make room for what’s important
When you’ve covered what you can handle (internal resources) and what the audience wants, it’s time for action.

We decided to prioritize our newest online educational content:
Grade 4
Grade 8
Energy

And we made sure we still had room for growth.

How do you decide what to keep on your site? Here is a quick cheat sheet of strategic questions to ask when dealing with content on your website that maybe doesn’t fit into the new structure-

Browser support
If a project is done in a program like flash, it’s no longer supported in browsers. End it.

Usage
There is a difference between a low use area and dying area. Low use might be worth keeping or redoing in the future. The dying track is just that. It is OK to remove content that is at the end of its lifespan.

Analysis and Audit
This will save your team from “But it’s so good” syndrome. What your team thinks is fantastic material isn’t always what the customer values. If material doesn’t help your users, it isn’t fantastic. Each area has to be reviewed and taken on its own merits.

Some decisions are easier than others.  At the end of the day, it all comes down to serving the  people of North Dakota. And with our new ndstudies.gov website we can do that better. Which comes with the side effect of increased web traffic. Win win!

North Dakotans visit ndstudies.gov most, followed by Minnesota, California, and Virginia

2014 website sessions: 24,779 | 2018 website sessions: 106,370

That's an increase of 312%

When you visit ndstudies.gov, you probably don’t think about the people behind the screens in the museum producing all of the online learning options for North Dakota. You are probably thinking about the information you need to find to tackle the job you need to do. You want accurate information that you can find in a flash. Great websites mean continual improvement so that users have a great website experience.

Favorite ndstudies.gov top searches: Venn diagram, The importance of history in our own lives, 3 venn diagram

Wow. You guys really like venn diagrams.

And great website experiences have people coming back for more. Thanks North Dakota!

Site loyalty rose 74% in October 2018

Venn diagram of funny people, value accurate information, and history rock stars

Here's a venn diagram just for you.