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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!

Producing "The Horse in North Dakota" Exhibit: Part 2

It’s been four months since I last blogged about The Horse in North Dakota exhibit and behind-the-scenes work is “galloping” along. One of the most important things we’ve learned is that the chance to use horse- related puns isn’t one you can say “neigh” to!

Telling the Story in Three Dimensions

In my last blog I compared an exhibit to telling a story. The biggest difference between a story you’d read in a book and the story you follow in an exhibit is one of dimension. In a book you turn pages to progress through the narrative. In an exhibit a visitor literally moves through the story as they walk from one part of an exhibit to the next.

Rather than dividing the story into chapters, I divide an exhibit gallery into topic areas. I start with a “bubble” plan to figure out how much floor space each topic needs and how they connect to each other. In the beginning it looks like this:

Plan showing layout of sections for the exhibit

To continue the reading metaphor, most people read books starting with Chapter One and continue sequentially to the end. Not having chapters, an exhibit must provide physical guides to show visitors how to move through the story. So after the bubble plan, the next step is to put in walls or dividers.

Floor plan for exhibit showing where dividers will be

The walls suggest a path for visitors to follow and create the suggestion of small rooms that contain topics – almost like a chapter contains a discrete part of a story.

At the same time we are working on the layout we are also developing content – all the parts of the exhibit that convey information. Content can be written text, photographs, videos, audio, hands-on interactives, and the objects, of course. In exhibit design, we have the unique challenge of figuring out how to put different types of content together so they succinctly and clearly convey the information.

For example, in the military section we’ll discuss the historic US Cavalry. Mounted cavalry had an advantage in war because they could move quickly over large distances. However, there still needed to be a means of communication. Before radios and cell phones there was the bugle.

This panel explains the bugle’s importance, gives visitors a chance to hear bugle calls, and shows what a mid-19th century bugler looked like.

Panel for the section Live by the Bugle

Notice the warm yellow and reddish colors at the top and bottom of the panel. If you refer back to the bubble plan, all of the panels in the “Horses at Work” bubble will use these colors. Other areas, such as “Evolution of the Horse” will have a different color scheme. In addition to the walls, color and graphic design indicate to visitors that they are encountering a new topic as they move through the exhibit.

I hope this brief behind-the-scenes look at exhibit development will add an extra layer of enjoyment when you come to experience The Horse in North Dakota. The exhibit opens on August 25, 2018.

5 Reasons Readers Love "North Dakota History"

As an editor, I get to geek out over dictionaries, style guides, and book catalogs (such as this one from the University of Nebraska Press). I also try to stay current with a variety of academic journals, and am privileged to work with editor Pam Berreth Smokey on one of the best in our region: North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains, published semiannually by the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Perhaps you are one of our devoted readers, but for the uninitiated (and newcomers to the northern plains, such as myself), I am excited to tell you about this stellar resource. The State Historical Society loves gathering audience feedback, and we recently conducted a North Dakota History reader survey. Ensuring reader satisfaction is a unique challenge in that we want to present new, credible scholarship in an accessible and visually appealing way.

Well, we were thrilled with the results! Here are five top reasons readers love our journal.

Journal covers

Recent covers of North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains

1. Well-researched articles.
Did you know the State Historical Society of North Dakota has published an academic journal since 1906? While the journal (called North Dakota Historical Quarterly from 1926 to 1945) maintains high academic standards for the historians, professors, and others who contribute well-researched articles, we also attract a broad general readership of folks interested in the history of our region. If we can help the reader think more deeply about an article topic through a new lens or learn a fascinating new tidbit about history, we’re fulfilling our purpose.

2. Enlightening topics.
In our reader survey, over half of respondents* rated the journal “outstanding,” and 79 percent read “most pages” or “cover to cover.” As a bookworm (and the journal’s book review editor), I am excited folks still make time to read an entire magazine! Some of the most interesting feedback relates to article topics: immigrant ethnic history is our most popular subject area, with Native American history and architecture/historic preservation coming in close behind.

Chart showing favorite topics

From North Dakota History reader survey, January 2018

3. Local history is personal.
Our most popular article of 2016–17 was “1997 Grand Forks Flood” by University of North Dakota professor Kimberly Porter, which recounted a personal experience of the natural disaster many of our readers lived through. Similarly, our Winter 2017 issue featured McIntosh County German-Russians and three rural North Dakota cemeteries, meaning many of our readers were tied (as actual relatives, or culturally) to the people and communities discussed.

Photo of 1997 Grand Forks flood

Kimberly Porter’s article on the 1997 Grand Forks flood was the most popular of the past year. North Dakota History, Vol. 82.1 (Summer 2017), pp. 18–19

4. Great design.
Images remain vital to our storytelling, and we are proud the journal has won the Mountain-Plains Museums Association Publication Design Award for two years in a row (2016–17). The most recent winner included this article on frontier photographer Orlando S. Goff, who captured an iconic photo of Sitting Bull in 1881.

5. One-of-a-kind stories.
On the northern plains, truth sometimes really is stranger than fiction. We continue to add original content for free online, including this recently posted 1957 article, “Reminiscences of a Pioneer Mother.” A personal favorite, Kate Roberts Pelissier’s astounding oral history is reminiscent of Little Women and the Little House books.

Margaret Barr Roberts

Margaret Barr Roberts, described in “Reminiscences of a Pioneer Mother” by Kate Roberts Pelissier, raised five daughters alone on a ranch near Medora after her husband disappeared. SHSND A4454

Have I piqued your interest enough? You can catch up with the contents of recent issues online, read them in our State Archives, purchase copies through our Museum Store, or subscribe. Our next issue, going to press in June, will highlight World War I memorials across the state and explore the 1856 G. K. Warren maps, which were pivotal in charting the Missouri River and its environs.

Keep reading! And don’t hesitate to let us know what you think.


* We conducted the survey electronically through an email to available subscribers. The link was also published in the print journal. Fifteen percent (148 people) of the email list responded.

Guest Blogger: Ann Crews Melton

Lenny KruegerAnn Crews Melton is associate editor of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. She edits "Plains Talk" newsletter, the State Historical Society annual report, assists with "North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains," and scribbles a red pen across many other resources.