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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!

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!

The North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum “By the Numbers”

Life as a volunteer for SHSND is always exciting and challenging. There is always a new project, a new event, or a new group of people to introduce to the many wonders of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

I recently had the great fun of hosting a tour of 40 high school juniors, seniors and faculty from a Minot, ND, high school. The group was trying to pack as much as possible into their road trip to Bismarck. They visited the legislature in the morning and wanted a tour of the Heritage Center before heading back to Minot for a basketball tournament. As a result of their busy itinerary, the time allotted for their tour was short.

My challenge was to share as much information about the Heritage Center as possible in addition to allowing time for a hurried walk-through of the galleries. I decided that the only way to introduce the many distinct areas of the facility was to create and present a “photo tour” of the building.

I started the photo tour with a slide containing the following “teaser” numbers:

52 million
600 million
12 million

52 million - 255,000 - 600 million - 12 million - 1 - North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum

I spent the next 30 minutes revealing the meaning of each individual number.

In November of 2014, the newly expanded and renovated $52 million addition to the Heritage Center was formally introduced to the public.

On that day, 97,000 square feet of space was officially added to the Heritage Center to total 255,000 square feet under one roof. To visualize that number, we did some quick math with an example everyone could relate to. Two hundred and fifty-five thousand (255,000) square feet is equivalent to just under 5 1/2 football fields under one roof. As I explained, there is an entire unseen world one floor down from the main galleries that contributes 48,500 square feet to the total.

The challenge for a 1 hour tour was not only in roaming over 5 1/2 football fields, but also the fact that 600 million years of history are on display in the three main galleries.

It became apparent to the students that the only way to get some understanding of the many departments (called “Divisions”) and hidden corners of the Heritage Center in one hour was through the remainder of the photo tour.

In the comfort of the new Great Plains Theater, my photos allowed them to descend to the lower, secured area of the Heritage Center. As I explained to them, the lower floor is the “heart and brain” of the facility. It is here that all the artifacts and objects, as well as the information accompanying them, are prepared for display in the main floor museum galleries.

I spend a lot of my volunteer time in the Archaeology & Historic Preservation division, so I had more facts available for this area of the Heritage Center.

The Archaeology Collections Manager is responsible for 12 million artifacts in this Division alone. At any one time, about 800 of the 12 million artifacts are on display in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples. The artifacts in the collections storage area are arranged on 20,000 linear feet of shelves—that is 3.8 miles of shelving! These artifacts represent 13,000 years of human history in what is now North Dakota.

I quickly reviewed the remainder of the lower level consisting of the paleontology lab, the archaeology lab, museum preparation lab, other collection storage areas, the Communications & Education division, museum, security, and staff offices.

From the lower level, photos moved them back to the main floor with a “stop” at the Archives Division with its 30,000 square feet of space. From there, we quickly moved on to the overall organization of the main galleries before our time was up.

I didn’t have time to tell them that we now have 300 percent more Paleoindian artifacts on display, that our annual visitation has more than doubled since we reopened, that another of our volunteers has taken 30,000 digital photos in the past 16 months, or that in addition to our 90+ paid staff, we have 200 volunteers that keep the State Museum and our state historic sites ticking.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a personal visit must be worth at least a thousand pictures. We hope to see you at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum. Please allow more than one hour to see everything!