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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!

Wendi Murray's blog

New Visitor Viewing Areas Added to our Archaeological Collections Tours

Every museum has education collections. In the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division, these are collections of artifacts that we use to teach visitors about the human past. They may be scapula gardening hoes, stone projectile points, or tiny glass beads – basically any object that can help illustrate human behavior, interaction, and innovation in the past. These are the collections we use in educational programs, take to local classrooms, and allow people to handle and touch. This is important because so much of archaeology is tactile – that is, the feeling of the object in your hand is part of the process of identifying and analyzing it. For instance, you might have a hard time feeling the surface treatment on a pot, the smooth finish on a groundstone, or the grinding on the base of a projectile point if you were wearing gloves.  So this collection is an important part of teaching people how we make the dozens of observations that allow us to draw stories from objects.

But these collections are different from our permanent, accessioned collections in one important way. They have little or no provenience. Provenience refers to where the artifact came from (both the site itself and which part of the site). Provenience information is where we learn the artifact’s context – where the artifact was found in relation to other artifacts and features on a site. And context is what lends the artifact its research value. If I found an artifact on the ground and picked it up to take it home (or even to our museum to show someone!) without recording its exact location, I have essentially erased most of that object’s scientific research potential. This is why if you ever visit an excavation, you will see half the people digging and the other half diligently taking notes on everything they are seeing in the ground.

Without this information, we don’t know if (for example) the object was used at a bison kill site or a stone tool manufacturing site. An object taken from the floor of one earthlodge versus another earthlodge at the same site can tell us something about cultural identity or social interaction in a multiethnic community. A bone bead tells us a much different story coming from a Plains Village site than it does coming from a Paleoindian hunting camp.

Ideally, all of our artifacts would be provenienced and become a part of our permanent collection. But for those that aren’t, we can still put them to good use as part of our education collection. For instance, a few months ago I was starting to get a little bored with the tours I was giving of our collections spaces. I talked a lot about the types of things we curate and what they can tell us about North Dakota’s past. But they are all stored in boxes—this is great for the artifacts, but not very exciting for visitors! When tour groups walk in, the sheer number of shelves and boxes can give them a good sense of the volume of the collection. But being able to visualize the content of those boxes is much more difficult. Instead of asking people to just trust me that they were full of artifacts, I wanted to show them.

Storage room

One of the archaeology collections storage rooms.

So I started laying artifacts on a work table in that room before all of my tours. But that was inconvenient, because our staff needs to use that table frequently. That means I had to haul out the artifacts and put them back every time I gave a tour. Our simple solution was to use the new storage drawers that were installed as part of our expansion. Voila! With just a couple days of selecting, arranging, and labeling, Meagan and I were able to create a handy display of the types of things that are in all those boxes. We made separate drawers for groundstone, bone tools, stone tools, pottery, modified shell, and organics. Then for historical objects, we included everything from horse tack to buttons to toys to gun parts. The top drawers are for visitor viewing, and the drawers below contain similar (and unprovenienced) artifacts that our staff can just grab whenever they need them for educational programs.

Storage Drawers

Artifact storage drawers containing our new education collections.

Drawer of objects relating to child's play and toys

Education collection drawer of historical objects relating to child’s play and toys

Groundstone artifacts

Another drawer contains all groundstone artifacts, from grooved axes to stone beads.

Drawer of guns, gun parts, bullets, and ammunition molds

Another drawer contains guns, gun parts, bullets, and ammunition molds.

In addition to these collections, we are also putting together reference collections (made with provenienced artifacts) for researchers that range from ceramics to projectile point styles to military buttons to bullets.  Would you ever guess while you are walking through the galleries that all of this work is going on right beneath your feet in the lower level of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum? I highly recommend that you come and see it for yourself!

Bringing Baby to Work: The SHSND Infant-at-Work Program

I loved the Infant-At-Work Program so much that I brought both of my sons to work! My favorite aspect about the program was being able to bond with my babies after my maternity leave was over. I felt so fortunate to be able to contribute to my professional career and see my sons every day!” - Emily Ergen, SHSND Archives Specialist

This post will take you way behind the scenes, to talk about the tiniest members of our staff. Many people are not aware that North Dakota state agencies have an “Infant-at-Work Program” (IAWP). I don’t know how it works for other agencies, but I have benefited from it myself at the SHSND and thought the blog would be a good way to share about how it works here.

Employee at his work desk with baby daughter

Tom Linn (Architectural Project Manager) works on his computer while his daughter naps in his lap.

Very simply, IAWP allows new moms and dads to bring newborns to work every day until the child is six months old. YES. I KNOW. Amazing, right? Since I started here in 2011, I have worked alongside at least eight agency babies, including my own daughter. The policy has some caveats, of course – the baby must be in a safe environment, you cannot travel with the baby in a state vehicle, and the baby cannot be at work if he or she is so loud or disruptive that it affects productivity (our administrators make that decision). Parents also need to provide all necessary furniture or equipment like strollers, cribs, changing supplies, etc. So while it is allowed, parents still need to be mindful and considerate. That is not too much to ask, considering what you get in return.

Employee at her computer with daughter and co-worker lying on floor playing with baby

Left: My daughter did not like doing her five minutes of “tummy time” in the office! In a show of solidarity, Lisa Steckler (Historic Preservation Planner) was kind enough to keep her company.
Right: My daughter spent a lot of time in her baby carrier, which allowed me to type with both hands!

So now you might be wondering – how could anyone get any work done while they are also taking care of a baby? It’s a great question. I asked myself the same thing before I started bringing my baby to work. I was so nervous that having her at work would be stressful or affect my productivity (or that of my coworkers). But newborns mostly sleep, snuggle, observe, and eat for the first few months, all of which are things they can basically do anywhere. Don’t get me wrong – working with a baby is hardly easy. But I did learn how to type softly so I didn’t wake her if she was asleep on me, find quiet places to read my work out loud so she would be entertained, and we went for walks through the galleries when she got restless.

Employee watching her baby daughter on a foam piece

Here is Genia Hesser’s (Curator of Exhibits) daughter learning the ropes of exhibit development in the Exhibit Production room.

Usually my job is varied enough that I can do things while moving if she is in an active mood, or sit at my computer and get other things done if she is feeling content. We got into a good groove after a few weeks, where I could predict the best times during the day for me to schedule meetings, eat lunch, do standing work, make phone calls, and so on. And when you do start noticing that your baby is more active and needs more of your attention, you are typically at that 6-month mark, when it is time for him/her to “resign” from the job anyway.

Two employee's babies sitting in play area

Left: Visitors to our administrative offices may or may not have noticed this little lady on the floor behind Ashleigh Miller’s (Administrative Assistant) desk! She was Ashleigh’s sidekick in answering the phone, assisting visitors, and keeping track of our leave balances.
Right: Here is another SHSND baby helping Erica Houn (Administrative Officer) with payroll and accounts.

Our agency converted our former first aid room to a nursery, complete with a rocking chair, soft lighting, refrigerator and private bathroom. There was never a shortage of co-workers willing to hold her, talk to her, or take her for a walk. In our building, you typically see a baby traveling with an adoring entourage around 10 a.m. or 3 p.m. every day, as people take their work breaks. It gives parents a rest and gives the baby plenty of social time with agency staff. My coworkers were also great about opening doors for me, carrying some of the ten bags I always seemed to have hanging off of me, and looking at me with sympathy rather than irritation when my baby cried.

My baby attended dozens of meetings in her first six months, saw her first artifact before she could eat solid food, did some exhibit planning, supervised my work on the lithic comparative collection, and helped me organize countless collections from her stroller or baby carrier. She was an attentive and agreeable sounding board, who always seemed to think that my ideas were great. Our staff even threw her a “retirement party” on her last day of work.

Cubicle transformed into baby station

This was my version of a cubicle-nursery in 2014.

As a parent who has benefited from this policy, I am eternally grateful for it for so many reasons. First, I felt like I could enjoy my maternity leave, since I knew that the end of it did not mean the end of being with my baby all day. I was able to bond with my daughter for her first six months, with no disruption in feeding routines or constant worrying during the work day about how she was doing (which I would definitely do) . Second, she grew accustomed to being able to sleep through ANYTHING (and it stuck!).

And lastly, it made me feel a sense of support in the workplace that I have not had anywhere else. Whether it was our Historic Preservation Planner getting on the floor to do “tummy time” with her, our Grants & Contracts officer watching her while I attended a meeting, or our reference specialist mesmerizing her with sparkly things while we talked about historical records, I was never made to feel like my baby was an intrusion. She was just part of the team, and our Security guys even made her an SHSND name badge to prove it. So the next time you see one of us with a baby at the North Dakota Heritage Center, you will know that he or she is part of a tiny army of future historians who were lucky enough to get their start at the State Museum.

Employee holding her son

Amy Munson (Grants & Contracting officer) was the first parent in our agency to take advantage of IAWP by bringing her son to work in 2006. Thanks for leading the way, Amy!