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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!

Len Thorson - Melissa Thompson's blog

Primping and Prepping Artifacts for Exhibit

We will be opening a new temporary exhibit in the Governor’s Gallery of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum on August 25, 2018. The exhibition, titled The Horse in North Dakota, includes about 200 artifacts and specimens from the Museum Division, Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division, the North Dakota State Fossil Collection, as well as a few items borrowed from the citizens of North Dakota.

The Museum Division staff is spending many hours of preparation on artifacts selected for the exhibit. Once artifacts are selected, the objects need to be cleaned, their conditions evaluated and reported, and object data sheets created. Each artifact that requires additional physical support must then be fitted on appropriate mannequins or mounts.

Many of the artifacts selected for The Horse in North Dakota include leather. Due to the organic nature of leather and its natural oils, a very common reaction between leather and metals occurs, especially between leather and copper. Copper in contact with leather develops a waxy, flakey, or hairy buildup that needs to be removed. Technically this accreted material is known as fatty acids stained with copper ions, but we affectionately call it “green gunk.” In order to remove the green gunk, it is gently rubbed off using thin wooden dowels, skewers, and cuticle pushers. Additionally, brushes, cotton muslin, and cotton swabs are used for cleaning. It is finished off with a swipe of ethanol.

Before and after photos of the green gunk removal from a metal ring on a

Before and after photos of the green gunk removal from a metal ring on a saddle (14682.2).  It took Melissa Thompson, Assistant Registrar, nineteen hours of work to clean all of the green gunk off the McClellen saddle.

Spew, or bloom, is a white powdery substance that appears on the surface of leather. Spew is formed when the fatty acids and oils in the leather migrate to the surface and are exposed to air. The powdery substance is easy removed with either a soft bristle brush or a cotton cloth.

Spew being removed from the strap of a saddle bag

Spew being removed from the strap of a saddle bag (09186) using a soft bristle brush.

Many metal objects are polished with a cream or tarnish remover while they are in use. We do not polish any of the metals in our collection for various preservation reasons. Over time, residue from the polish that was once used on the artifact turns white and can hide many of the decorative details of an artifact. Such is the case with these medallions on the sides of a bridle. The green gunk was removed using the wooden tools. Then, using distilled water and small wooden skewers, as much of the white residue was removed as possible to unveil the medallion’s detail.

Before and after of brass tarnish being removed from bridle

Before and after removing brass tarnish residue from bridle (2007.00053.00049)

A condition report, which is a written description and visual record of an artifact’s condition, is completed before the object goes on exhibit. All defects are described, measured, and photographed. We look for fading, cracks, tears, deterioration, missing parts, chips, and any other types of damage depending on the artifact’s material make-up. Once an artifact comes off exhibit, condition reports are completed again to determine whether any changes occurred while it was on exhibit.

Data sheet for toy horse

A Word document produced directly from our museum software database program. Click image for larger view.

Some of the objects selected for The Horse in North Dakota will need to have custom mounts created. These mounts may be soft mounts, which is Coroplast (corrugated plastic) covered in cotton batting and cotton muslin. They could be made out of Plexiglas, or they may be mannequins. Sometimes we make our mannequins from scratch. We use metal rods for the stand, Ethafoam (a closed cell polyethylene material), and either cotton muslin or cotton stockinette.

Making a mannequin for a child's Cowgirl costume

Jenny Yearous, Curator of Collections Management) carving ethafoam into a neck and shoulders with an electric carving knife.  B.  The neck and shoulders covered in stockinette, and the ethafoam waist. C. Finished mannequin with children’s Cowgirl costume (2017.66.11-12).

Come see all of these artifacts and many more in The Horse in North Dakota starting August 25th!  Let us know how many hours you think the collections staff spent getting the artifacts ready for display.

Filling the Collection’s Gaps with Horse-Related ND History

The North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum will open a new temporary exhibit called The Horse in August 2018. Once a topic for a temporary exhibit has been chosen, the curatorial staff examines what we have in the current museum collections and what we may need to fill the gaps. Filling the gaps involves reaching out to the public to find needed objects, not just for the exhibit, but also for the continuity of North Dakota history by adding historically significant objects to the permanent collections. After we have compiled an inventory of artifacts needed, we add those items to our proactive collecting list.

Over the past couple months, we have accepted multiple horse-related objects into the museum collections. First, we were offered a western saddle with tooled leather and a saddle pad, which had been used as a training saddle for a young horse named Piper. The saddle has a broken tree and is not fit for riding, so the owner retained the saddle after selling the horse to a family for use in equine therapy. Since the donor’s current horse is much too large for this saddle, she decided to offer the saddle and saddle pad to the State Historical Society. We did not possess any saddles that post-date 1950 in the museum collections, so even though it has a broken tree, we accepted the donation.



A toy to entice the imagination of a child is invaluable. We were recently offered, along with other toys and household goods, a stick horse from the 1950s. Once it was determined that we did not have a stick horse already in the museum collections, this was unanimously accepted by the museum collections committee. The stick horse has a red-painted wooden stick and a tan velvet horse head.

Stick horse


Veterinary medicine has come a long way over the centuries that people have been taking care of domesticated horses. One of the ways people keep their equines healthy is with medications both prescribed by a veterinarian and those purchased over the counter. The Museum Division was recently offered a box of Zimecterin Gold, an equine deworming paste, along with the administering syringe. The actual deworming paste was discarded because, over many years, the properties of the medication might be detrimental to the syringe and container.

Zimecterin Gold


Protective horse gear has also evolved over the years. In an attempt to relieve some anxiety and stress from insects, horses may stomp their feet, causing stress on their legs and hooves. They may also rub their faces, body, and tail against posts or corners, causing potential cuts, injury, and tail loss. The increased stress load of pests can quickly compromise the health of the horse. Using a horse mask, flysheet, and fly boots helps alleviate stress from biting, sucking, and irritating insects such as flies, gnats, midges, ticks, mosquitos, as well as protect the face, body, and legs from sun damage.

Horse wearing protective face mask

The donor’s horse is named Raleigh, and here he is modeling the fly mask and fly boots recently accepted for the collection. (2017.00073)

If you have horse-related objects that the State Historical Society should consider adding to the museum collections, such as toys, post-1950 western or English saddles, rodeo equipment, riding clothing (boots, jeans, show shirts, or jodhpurs), bridles, or lariats, please let us know by filling out the donation questionnaire. We look forward to hearing from you.