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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!

Museum Feedback Matters: How Visitor Comments Influence Dinosaur Battles and Chocolate

Comment Card: OMG, I Seriously Loved It! I'm going to come back everyday for the rest of my life. This museum changed my life. I love Shakespeare.

Visitor comment card at the State Museum, summer 2016

What’s the best time you’ve had in a museum? And what made that visit so awesome?

Part of our work in the Communications & Education Division is to find out what our visitors want and need to have the best (or most life changing) museum experience.

The late Governor Art Link once described the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum as “the people’s place.” Our division staff strives to keep his words in mind with everything we do. We focus on providing historically accurate, memorable, educational, and entertaining experiences for 230,000 people coming to this place each year. Quite simply, we want you to learn, have fun, and love museums.

Visitors of all ages and backgrounds come here to discover, to occupy kids for a few hours, to conduct academic research, to enjoy time with friends, to disconnect, to enjoy a program, to sip a latte in the café, or to come in from the cold. With so many motives for museum visits, we use research tools to help us understand what’s most important to you.

We conduct surveys, offer questionnaires during programs, conduct focus groups, compile community input, make comment cards available, and monitor what interests you on our websites and social media. That data helps us make informed decisions on future programs, exhibits, and even where our tourist brochures are placed. Your comments make a difference and shape the way we serve the public.

Here are a few key items that were collectively important to our 2016 visitors:

You requested more family activities. We provided more family friendly experiences and had an enthusiastic public response. The opening of the Treehouse exhibit for young visitors has provided fresh energy and laughter in the building. We added programs for toddlers and parents, new art activities, and more free family films. The Museum Division staff also enhanced a popular hands-on dinosaur interactive in the Geologic Time gallery featuring a T. rex battling a Triceratops. Your feedback caused us to stretch in new child-friendly ways, and we are grateful.

Family using the dinosaur interacitve and a comment card reading: It was so much fun. I beat my husband in the dinosaur game. My son enjoyed the animals.

You requested more traveling exhibits to bring the outside world into our state. “I can’t afford to travel, so I appreciate having national exhibits brought here,” wrote one commenter. We listened. In 2016, we offered the Smithsonian’s Green Revolution exhibit and Shakespeare’s First Folio exhibit. Teaser alert: Watch for the national Chocolate exhibit opening on May 27. Everything’s better with chocolate, museums included.

You wanted easy access to history content at your fingertips. Many of you have commented that our agency website is difficult to navigate. We agree, and we’re working on it. You’ll see a facelift in 2017. Meanwhile, our staff launched a new State Museum website to help tourists and locals better plan visits and experience parts of the museum virtually.

We discovered that our social media subscribers can’t get enough historic photos of blizzards. One December Facebook post reached over 220,000 people. Personal connections to history matter. We understand and will keep working to find and share historical stories and objects that have an impact.

Cars covered in snow up to their windows.

Cars parked in the Kirkwood Mall parking lot in Bismarck were covered in snow up to their windows during the April 1997 blizzard. SHSND 32228-02-10

Sometimes we can’t honor every request, like the suggestion of a grade schooler who let us know he would prefer a green John Deere tractor to the red Case ag cab on exhibit. But we do consider every request.

Card from museum visitor

Comment card: This is the best museum ever! I would come back to North Dakota JUST for this museum.

While we can’t change a life with every visit, we do promise to offer some pretty amazing moments of viewing rare fossils, a few shrieks of joy from our Treehouse toddlers, and some engaging ways to explore your own connections to North Dakota history—thanks to your helpful comments. As we begin 2017, I invite you to continue sharing questions and ideas.

Guest Blogger: Kim Jondahl

Kim JondahlKim is Director of the Communications & Education division. She oversees the division's programming, serves as the primary media contact, oversees branding strategies, writes and edits marketing and educational pieces, and coordinates partnerships with outside organizations.

Return of a Japanese Good Luck Flag

Japanese WWII good luck flag

PAR-2016015 Japanese WWII Yosegaki Hinomaru, good luck flag.

A Japanese flag (PAR-2016015) and a piece of wood with Japanese writing (PAR-2016085) were unaccessioned items recently found in the museum collections storage area (see Lost and Found in the Collections). Lacking any documentation or provenance on these items and with similar, well-documented objects already present in the General Collection, the Museum Collections Committee declined the objects for the collection. After careful deliberation, the committee determined the best route for these objects would be to turn them over to the Obon Society. The Obon Society is a nonprofit organization that specializes in the repatriation of war prizes taken from Japan during World War II. They specifically focus on the repatriation of Good Luck flags, Yosegaki Hinomaru. Before leaving home, it was common for a soldier’s family and friends to write well wishes and to encourage bravery in battle on a small Japanese flag. The flag was then presented to the soldier and the soldier carried the flag with him throughout his time in the war. It was believed that the Yosegaki Hinomaru held a power with their messages that would watch over the soldier and see him through difficult times.The Yosegaki Hinomaru were popular war prizes among US soldiers, and many flags were taken from Japanese soldiers and brought back to the United States. We currently have 3 Yosegaki Hinomarus in the Society’s collection. Now, many veterans and family members of WWII veterans are returning these flags and other war prizes back to Japan. The flags hold deep meaning for Japanese families. For many families, these returned war prizes are the only remains of the soldier they will ever receive.

PAR-2016085 Wooden plank with identification information written in Japanese.

Although the Obon Society focuses most of their efforts on the good luck flags, they accept other personal items that were taken from Japanese servicemen including diaries and letters. For this reason, we also transferred the piece of wood with writing on it to the Obon Society. The writing on the wood gives identifying information, similar to the kind of information that would be on a military dog tag. Hopefully the Obon Society will be able to trace the name written on the wood to a living family member.

The Obon Society is not always successful in their endeavors, but they try to send all items back to a family member. If that is not possible, they try to find the community the soldier was from and give it to a community center, local government, or even a local shrine.

The Obon Society believes that returning these war prizes is an exercise of goodwill and friendship between two nations and a symbol of reconciliation. It can bring closure to families both in Japan and the United States. The Obon Society’s work has been endorsed by the American Embassy in Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs. The Museum Collections Committee believed this was an opportunity for the State Historical Society of North Dakota to contribute to a humanitarian cause.

The State Historical Board approved the repatriation action at their October 10, 2016, meeting. The proper paperwork was filled out and the flag and wood were shipped to the Obon Society in November. We have since received a thank you letter letting us know we will be notified when the objects are being researched and whether or not the Obon Society was able to trace the items to the family or town from which they came.

If you would like to find out more about the Obon Society and their mission, visit http://obonsociety.org. You can also learn more from the video, A Peaceful Return.