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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!

The North Dakota Archives and World War I

WWI Draftees

SHSND D0692. World War I Draftees shown in front of a building.

Harvey Hopkins in WWI uniform

SHSND 21085. Harvey Hopkins is shown in a World War I uniform. Picture taken circa 1917.

These past few months, we have seen an uptick of researchers in the Archives looking for information on World War I. This is at least partially because we are currently a century out from the Great War, as it was known at the time. An event that is so widespread and life-altering across the world evokes curiosity, reminders, and memorials.

You might think we would not have a ton from World War I in our archives, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s true that it is not our largest grouping of collections. However, we are a state entity archiving North Dakota history, and many North Dakotans served and saw battle, or pinched and saved and donated for the cause. The Great War impacted everyone, including North Dakota. Therefore, we have some collections related to it.

WWI Posters

SHSND 10935 P014, 10935 P345, 10935 P149. Several posters from our WWI collection.

One of our most popular World War I collections, #10327, consists of four scrapbooks of letters from soldiers that were printed in various newspapers from 1918 to 1919. These oversized books contain a plethora of snapshots into a different past, allowing soldiers to share details of their daily lives and experiences in their own words.

We also have collections that deal partially with World War I. Collection #10107, for example, contains some correspondence to and from Hazel Nielson o ver several decades. This includes letters from Hazel to her family and friends while she stayed in Europe during World War I.

We also have one of the largest collection of WWI and WWII propaganda posters in the country. This is because one of our past curators, Melvin Gilmore, felt that the war posters documented such an important piece of our history, he needed to save them. He sent out a call for these documents, and received them from all corners of the world. As a result, we have war posters that are in multiple languages and in different conditions. Some are pristine, some are well-used, and all paint an interesting picture of the attitudes at the time of the war.

Screenshot of SHSND website

A screen shot of the WWI page on our website.

More books, documents, and photos can be found searching our website through ODIN, our online database. You can also venture off our website, looking through Digital Horizons, or even skimming through collections we have earmarked as related to World War I on this web page.

This year, as part of the curriculum of Dr. Joseph Stuart’s Great War class at the University of Mary, we were lucky enough to have about 20 interested and excited young men and women visit the Heritage Center and the Archives to research different facets of World War I. The class was composed of college students of different ages and interests, and developed into a cross-discipline event. Some researched war propaganda; some researched specific individuals who served; some researched the components of the mustard gas used in warfare.

Many of the students in the Great War Class at the University of Mary had never been inside an Archives before, and did not know what to expect. They came as a class multiple times, and some continued to come individually. We showed them around our Reading Room and showed them how to use our websites to locate these collections, and then they were free to discover their truths. They were kind and courteous and so excited! Their instructor informed me that at the start of every class, they started talking about what they were researching, what they were learning.

This sort of collaboration is a really cool and different way that we can help new and continuing researchers. It was incredible to watch these eager young adults work, learn, and grow as they developed their research, and as they began to understand what people went through just a century ago.

The Great War was terrible in many ways, but it is helpful to study it and learn from it, for all generations. We are lucky to be able to provide that service, and to see students use our collections to bring new knowledge and perspectives to an old story.

University of Mary students

KFYR photo. One of the students worked at our local news station, and put together a report that aired on local news channels of the work they were doing, still available to read on this page.

Many of the students in the Great War Class at the University of Mary had never been inside an Archives before, and did not know what to expect. They came as a class multiple times, and some continued to come individually. We showed them around our Reading Room and showed them how to use our websites to locate these collections, and then they were free to discover their truths. They were kind and courteous and so excited! Their instructor informed me that at the start of every class, they started talking about what they were researching, what they were learning.

This sort of collaboration is a really cool and different way that we can help new and continuing researchers. It was incredible to watch these eager young adults work, learn, and grow as they developed their research, and as they began to understand what people went through just a century ago.

The Great War was terrible in many ways, but it is helpful to study it and learn from it, for all generations. We are lucky to be able to provide that service, and to see students use our collections to bring new knowledge and perspectives to an old story.

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.