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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!

Rob Hanna's blog

Developing a New Citizenship Exhibit at Stutsman County Courthouse

a room with antique office furniture

This photo set loose a chain of thoughts about exhibits at the Courthouse that are about to become reality.

As I write this, the beautiful Stutsman County Courthouse State Historic Site in Jamestown is only partially furnished. But this photo, taken by my one-time colleague Guinn Hinman, caused me to see the place in a whole new light. She concentrated some of the historic paperwork, office equipment, and books in one room to stage this historic vignette. Don’t you want to step into that room? You just know you’d be immersed in another time. It makes you want to walk from room to room and see the different tools of an auditor, recorder, treasurer, sheriff, clerk of court. There would be typewriters, ballot boxes, mechanical calculators, seal presses, globes, fountain pens, prison keys and handcuffs, gavels, and robes.

Then I reflected on how badly voters, myself included, need to better understand these jobs. Several of them are elected positions. Do most of us know enough about the work of a county auditor or treasurer to make an informed vote?

black and white photo of a woman in an office chair at a desk

Marion Bond, acting superintendent of schools in Slope County Courthouse, 1918. Historic photos prove that North Dakota courthouses were not just workplaces for men. Even before passage of the 19th Amendment, women could vote in school elections in North Dakota, and many women were elected as superintendents of public instruction. SHSND SA 00392-000176

Thinking along these lines, what if the Courthouse could become a beautiful, immersive exhibit, where every room illustrates different aspects of local government and citizenship? The rooms and everyday objects of a historic courthouse would illustrate the Bill of Rights (jury room, warrants, newspapers), the expansion of civil rights over time (ballot boxes, secret ballots), government accountability (auditor’s office, treasurer’s office), the protection of private property (deeds and wills), law enforcement (sheriff’s office, jail), the role of public education in a democracy (superintendent of schools), and on and on. Indeed, if you had set out to make the most engaging museum about citizenship imaginable, could you possibly do better than this?

Stutsman County Auditors office with 4 employees

Office interior in McHenry County Courthouse, March 1906. Archival photos like this are helping us find historically accurate objects. SHSND SA 00226-000104

Naturally, this made me wonder what other museums, historic sites, or interpretive centers focused on citizenship are out there. I found some that address becoming a citizen, like Ellis Island. I found several that focus on aspects of citizenship like civil rights or military service. But much to my surprise, I couldn’t find one about being a citizen writ large. What rights do citizens in America have? What responsibilities? I found websites and even one or two exhibits, but not a single complete interpretive facility about being a citizen. If I’ve missed something, please let me know! But even if these sites exist, clearly there’s a need out there for more.

So when I learned that a grant was available through Jamestown Tourism to create unique local experiences that would draw people to the city, I knew we had to apply! The 1883 Courthouse Committee, who played a key role in saving the Courthouse and continue raising money for its ongoing restoration, were excited about this, too. As a group that cares deeply about both the Courthouse and community involvement, it was a natural fit. We were delighted when we heard that we got the grant.

antique black Remington Standard typewriter

A vintage Remington typewriter. Early technology like this is cool again. Why not use it to create memorable exhibit experiences?

Visitors to historic sites tend to come as groups — couples, families with children, school groups, friends. We want this exhibit to support fun, meaningful interactions among them. There will be functional devices like candlestick telephones, typewriters, mechanical calculators, and surveyors’ equipment. Visitors can cast votes on issues from early North Dakota history. They can type their answer to a thought-provoking question on a Remington typewriter, then post it to the wall for other visitors to consider and add to the conversation. There will be games for small children and a research library for the curious. You can see what we’ve done when we reopen for the season next Memorial Day weekend!

Outside of the Stutsman Courthouse building a red brick building with a blue sky behind

“Jamestown may well be proud of her court house for no better or more beautiful one was ever erected in all the land,” wrote the Jamestown Weekly Alert on July 6, 1883. More than an office building, the Courthouse reflected the pride Stutsman County citizens felt in the government they helped establish.

The Courthouse is a beautiful place, and a powerful one. You can feel it when you’re in the building. This is the monument that a founding generation built to democracy. This was 1883, after all, when many residents of Jamestown had been born in other countries as the subjects of hereditary monarchs. Many could remember having no say in taxation, war, or education. Where they came from, the highest hill around was frequently crested with a castle or palace for the ruler. But in Jamestown, they covered the highest hill with a palace for the citizens, the true rulers in America. This Courthouse was a celebration of American citizenship. I hope this exhibit is a fitting tribute to their legacy.

Hands-on History: The Do’s and Don’ts

We’re starting a project, called Hands-on History, to make history more immersive and multisensory at our staffed state historic sites. We want to give visitors more opportunities to learn by doing historically accurate activities, like trying on unique historic clothing, playing games, or using period technology.

It’s funny, though. Year after year I see articles, books, and conference presenters urging us to offer more interactive learning, but precious little advice about how to do it. I have received a ton of training on how to give tours, research history, write exhibit panels . . . so why is there so little out there about hands-on experiences? This means that over the last decade or so, I’ve had to just try things and see what worked. Here’s a little summary of what I’ve learned:

Soon numerous state historic sites will have stereoscopes, a 19th-century 3-D viewer, with images from the State Archives.

1. Do start with research.
This is where the most interesting and historically accurate ideas come from.

2. Do make your objects as close to original as possible.
You want the closest replica of the historic object you can get, within the limits of durability, repairability, or replaceability.

3. Do be excited.
If you’re offering an experience you’re excited about, your visitors will be, too.

Two people shooting off foam rockets from PVC pipe launcher

At the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site, Addilyn Groven got to launch her own (non-nuclear) rocket.

4. Do connect your object to an important idea.
Ideally the experience helps people understand the significance of your historic site. Since the visitor should have new insights from the experience, we can ask thought-provoking questions. (Was it possible to write with your left hand using an inkwell and a quill pen? If you were a schoolteacher at the time, how would you teach your left-handed students how to write?)

It must be said, though, that sometimes it’s okay to just offer a fun, historically-accurate experience that makes people feel more at home at your site.

5. Don’t think of hands-on history as an add-on to your “more important work” of conversing about history.
This attitude often causes us to treat visitors who may seem less interested, such as children, as if they are less important than the visitor who is already engaged and asking lots of questions. We have to serve the needs of all our visitors.

Science toys are nothing new. In the 19th century, a zoetrope helped kids learn about optics and moving images.

6. Don’t just give visitors something to touch.
Maybe you’ve observed this strange tendency, but the minute you give people permission to touch something at a historic site, their desire to touch it goes way down. The real fun starts with doing something. And not just anything. Which leads me to . . .

7. Don’t give your visitors historic work to do.
If it wasn’t fun in the past, it isn’t fun now.

Two adults posing in old time clothing while a man takes their picture

It may seem like a cheesy photo op, but clothing illustrates a lot about cultural values, social roles, and the work different people had to do.

8. Don’t make assumptions about who will or won’t try an experience.
I googled “why I hate museums” once, just to see what I might learn. One reason came up in multiple articles and really surprised me: people hate it when all the fun experiences are just for kids.

9. Don’t waste too much effort on experiences you can only offer at special events.
You can provide far more experiences — ones that require lots of set-up and clean-up, or a guest expert, etc. — if you offer them as special events. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But you’ll reach far more people if you develop experiences that visitors can try every day.

A young girl plays with blocks

In the Attic Playroom at the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, kids can play with toys typical of the years 1901–1960, the same time period the room was used by several governors’ children.

10. Don’t always expect your visitors to initiate the experience.
There’s so much confusion these days about what you can and can’t touch and do in any given historic site or museum. Visitors may need some active encouragement to try out new activities.

11. Do help visitors succeed when trying a new skill.
Make sure you know how to accomplish the task yourself, and look for opportunities to improve the experience so visitors succeed in their attempts to try it.

Three kids roll hoops with sticks

Kids used old steel wagon tires and later wooden or cane hoops for a wide variety of games called hoop trundling. These hoops eventually evolved into the hula hoop.

12. Do understand that there can be risks.
I’ve actually seen more injuries, such as heat exhaustion and passing out, on tours than during hands-on history experiences. Still we have to design these experiences to be reasonably safe and sometimes guide visitors to perform activities a certain way.

13. Do be appropriate.
It would not be culturally appropriate for visitors to try experiences that one must earn the right to perform in the original culture or context. We won’t be offering visitors the chance to try on warbonnets or medals of honor. Likewise, it’s disrespectful and wrong to try to replicate traumatic experiences. And yet . . .

14. Don’t pass over important cultures or communities.
It takes time, effort, and engagement to learn how to represent a group fairly, accurately, and appropriately, but it’s also essential to telling a balanced story.

An adult man holds up a young girl while she helps assemble a tipi

Sophia, like countless young girls stretching back centuries in North Dakota, learned how to lace up a tipi with wooden pins.

There are so many great reasons to do hands-on history. It makes history more enjoyable. It’s more accessible to children, people with disabilities, people who don’t speak your language, and people who otherwise might not visit historic sites and museums. Visitors learn more by involving multiple senses (taste, feel, smell, sound, sight, texture, temperature, etc.). They remember more, too. They’re more likely to take pictures of their awesome experience and share them with their friends. It gives them a reason to visit in person rather than only learn online.

I’m excited to watch this area grow, especially right here in North Dakota. Some of our Hands-on History experiences are already available at staffed state historic sites around North Dakota, and we will be adding more and more as time goes by. We hope you come try them out!