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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!

Collecting the Everyday: The Most Important Thing You Probably Don’t Know We Do

When you think of a museum collection, what types of artifacts do you think of? Maybe dinosaur bones, antique cars, or a World War II uniform? Something old, maybe even ancient. While collecting from the past is an essential part of the Museum Division’s function, what is just as important is collecting from the present.

Most people don’t know that we actively collect from today’s world, and the typical reaction when they find out is, “Why would you want that?” To many, modern items often seem too insignificant to belong in a museum. However, the purpose of the Museum Division’s collection is to preserve a three-dimensional historical record of life in North Dakota. What do these everyday items say about our values, our technology, and our society? What common stories are captured and preserved from our lives? What will they tell researchers about us in 100 years? 1,000? After all, what is now old and distinctive was once a part of everyday life.

Take a look at five artifacts that we have collected from our contemporary world. Do you have anything from your life that can add to North Dakota’s story?

1. Car Seat (2016.43.1)

Cow pattern car seat

Used by the donor for nine months of 2015, the car seat was a hand-me-down from a friend whose son had grown out of it. Some distinctive things about the artifact include an expiration date, which is a relatively new safety feature. We also know that the print on the seat cover is called Cow-Moo-Flage, which amuses me to no end. Would we have captured those stories had we collected the item 100 years from now? We likely would not have, and it adds a human dimension to the artifact. The advances in technology also say something to me about how much we, as a society, value our kids!

2. Apple iBook G3 Laptop (2016.22.1)

Apple iBook G3 laptop in orange and white

Like many of our more recent artifacts, the laptop came from our State Historical Society staff. It was purchased through a grant in 1999 for $1,599 (nearly $2,500 in 2018 dollars) so the agency could build a website to “take advantage of the public’s growing use of the internet.” Sporting 64 MB of ram and a 6 GB hard drive, its specifications make it practically unusable by today’s standards. It not only demonstrates the advances computers continue to make, but with its distinctive exterior, shows late 1990s fashion. It also documents efforts to adapt to a major shift in society: the proliferation and use of the Internet.

3. Cereal Box (1985.46.4)

Cheerios cereal box

We have a large collection of food containers. It’s something that typically gets thrown out or recycled, so why would a museum want it? How much of our time and money do we spend either preparing or purchasing food? And do you really understand a culture if you don’t understand how and what they eat? This cereal was purchased for the donor’s young children in 1985. How many of us as kids spent a Saturday morning eating a bowl of cereal while watching cartoons? It’s a common childhood story that is captured when we preserve this artifact.

4. Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone (2016.41.1)

Samsung Galaxy S4 cell phone

How can you talk about 21st century life without acknowledging the monumental shift brought about by smartphones? We have mobile phones in the collection running as far back as a 1980s car phone. In addition to the stories collected with each donation, each reflects changing technologies and the transition to the all-purpose devices we carry around today.

5. Selfie Stick (number not yet assigned)

Selfie stick

Part of the rise of smartphones is all the accessories that come along with them. Though selfie sticks have been around in one form or another for decades, they became a popular smartphone accessory within the last few years.
Do you have something from your life that would add to North Dakota’s story? Send in a potential donation questionnaire on our website.

Cold War Historic Site Connects with Today’s International Events

During the winter seasons at Oscar Zero, there are fewer visitors, and only the breeze at times breaks the silence of a prairie resting between harvest and planting. We have welcomed a steady share of guests with an interest in the Minuteman missile system through March, though, and questions arise inevitably concerning tensions with North Korea.

“Have any townspeople expressed interest in coming out and going downstairs during an attack?” (No)

“Could this site ever become reactivated?” (No)

The questions are often asked with a feeling of curiosity rather than worry.

It is an interesting time, as many Cold War thoughts have come back to the forefront of the news. Sweden recently announced distribution of civil defense pamphlets to millions of households due to Russian activities, something that has not happened since the end of the Cold War.

On January 13, 2018, a ballistic missile warning was mistakenly broadcast in Hawaii, causing great concern and reminding all of us that nuclear weapons have not been confined to the history books.

Facts about Fallout pamphlet

"Facts About Fallout" by the Federal Civil Defense Administration provided tips on how to deal with fallout and radioactivity

Oscar Zero is a unique part of the State Historical Society of North Dakota system due to its study and interpretation of the state’s expansive Cold War history. We have civil defense pamphlets from the 1950s and 1960s (Perhaps our favorite is “Facts about Fallout,” with a cover showing a man in a porkpie hat nervously looking up as a mushroom cloud forms behind him). The Cooperstown siren blares momentarily at noon; during the Cold War and beyond its purpose is to warn of a tornado, another type of civil emergency, or even a nuclear attack.

Outdoor warning siren

An "Outdoor Warning Siren" in Fargo. More often designated as tornado sirens across the state than a "civil defense siren," a warning on the City of Fargo website denotes, "When you hear the sirens: Immediate seek shelter indoors and turn on local media; do not assume there is no emergency because skies are clear."

Today, Minot Air Force Base’s B-52 bombers and Minuteman III missiles carry on the state’s historic mission of nuclear deterrence – a word that is an important part of any tour here at the site. Deterrence has not changed much since Oscar Zero’s Minuteman missiles stood ready in late 1966. North Dakota continues to be a part of America’s strategic vanguard.

USAF Standardized Alarm Signals

A document explaining the differences in "attack warning" and "attention alert signals" from sirens

Considering the news from Hawaii, Sweden, North Korea, and elsewhere, perhaps the old adage of “History repeats itself” is true in some regards. Much has changed since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but many effects of the Cold War linger on.

Explanation of a Minuteman mission from launch to impact

From the WS-133b (Minuteman II missile) manual at Oscar-Zero. An explanation of a Minuteman mission from launch to impact. It was approximately a 30-minute journey from November-33 east of Cooperstown, ND, to the Soviet Union.


Guest Blogger: Robert Branting

Robert BrantingRobert Branting is the site supervisor at Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site near Cooperstown, North Dakota. Aside from providing site management and public tours at Oscar-Zero, Robert is thoroughly fascinated with Cold War history and is completing work on a book on the history of a Strategic Air Command base in Nebraska. He enjoys reading, interviewing veterans and exploring Cold War sites.