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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!

AmeriCorps Volunteers Help Out at Fort Totten

On September 15, 2018, a team of AmeriCorps volunteers arrived at Fort Totten State Historic Site. The team, comprising eight volunteers aged 19 to 25, originated from all over the United States. Tasked with cleaning out the historic gymnasium in preparation for restoration, the team members got to work almost immediately.

AmeriCorps team members

AmeriCorps team members upon arrival, posing in the auditorium at Fort Totten State Historic Site.

Created in 1993, AmeriCorps is a federally funded volunteer program that sends teams all over America to complete their mission of “helping others and meeting critical needs in the community.” The process of acquiring an AmeriCorps grant and team began back in 2016 with several meetings between State Historical Society staff and AmeriCorps leaders. Upon acceptance, the staff of Fort Totten began preparations for the team’s arrival. The team would be staying at the Totten Trail Historic Inn, a Victorian-themed bed and breakfast operated by the Fort Totten State Historic Site Foundation and housed in the former Officer’s Quarters on the grounds of Fort Totten State Historic Site. Accustomed to sleeping outside and in church basements, the team rejoiced at having their own bedrooms and bathrooms for the duration of their visit.

AmeriCorps team members in hazmat suits outside gymnasium

Team members pose outside the gymnasium during clean-up.

Fort Totten staff slated 2-3 weeks for the gymnasium cleanup and were amazed when the project was completed in just five days. The team members then moved onto a lengthier project — the rehousing of the museum collections of the Lake Region Pioneer Daughters. You may remember from my previous blogs that the State Historical Society has made the restoration of the historic hospital/cafeteria a priority in the last few years. The historic hospital/cafeteria at Fort Totten has been home to the Lake Region Pioneer Daughters and their collections since 1960. Since the massive overhaul and restoration of the building, completed in 2017, the collections were housed in boxes throughout the basement of the building and accompanying buildings. AmeriCorps was tasked with combining the collections from multiple buildings, removing the objects from unsatisfactory boxes and housing, placing them in archival, acid-free boxes, and adding object tags with accession numbers to the items and boxes. Team members spent almost three weeks working on this project and were fascinated by the many treasures discovered in the vast collections.

AmeriCorps team members rehousing collections

Americorps team members rehouse the Lake Region Pioneer Daughters collection in the historic hospital/cafeteria at Fort Totten State Historic Site.

The experience of working with AmeriCorps was phenomenal and one we hope to have again. The young people involved were truly committed to public service and strengthening communities. We’re very excited to see what becomes of these young people and what they choose to do with their lives after AmeriCorps.

A Middle-Aged Museum Professional Learns New Tricks: Building Audience Engagement at Museums

In September I had the opportunity to attend the Mountain Plains Museum Association (MPMA) annual conference in Billings, Montana. MPMA is one of six regional museum associations in the United States that works in conjunction with the national American Association of Museums to advise on regional museum issues. The annual conference provides training, networking, and information sharing for museum professionals at a relatively low cost.

Montana's landscape with mountains and a body of water

Beautiful Montana

Due to budgets and schedules it’s not always feasible to attend every year. Billings, however, is practically next door to Bismarck. We’d just finished up a major exhibit project (The Horse in North Dakota, which if you haven’t been to visit yet — well, shame on you, because it’s amazing), so a few of us piled into a car and headed west.

I was most excited about the audience engagement workshops. A company out of New York called Museum Hack led both half-day workshops. Museum Hack got its start by giving unconventional tours of New York City museums based on the premise that (a) museums are awesome, but (b) many people don’t know that. This is something most museum professionals struggle with — how to effectively relay the incredible stories we know about the objects to visitors.

The morning session focused on storytelling — specifically on how to tell a good story. We all probably know a good story when we hear it, but we needed to break it down to identify its elements. To start, we role-played how both an inebriated person and a college professor might describe a museum visit. (As an aside, I think some of my museum colleagues really missed their theatrical calling.) After the short performances we tossed out adjectives to describe the museum-goers. The inebriated person was passionate, approachable, relatable, but also vague on details and not very knowledgeable. Our professor was authoritative, descriptive, trustworthy, but also quite boring and even snobbish. A good story combines the best parts of the inebriated and the expert storytelling — passionate but knowledgeable; approachable yet authoritative.

Our session leader, Zak, then outlined the five elements of a Museum Hack — whether that’s a program, a tour, or even an exhibit.

  1. Engagement or “the hook”: Get your audience to do something, and get them involved, because you can’t assume they care about the information you want to share.
  2. What’s the story? Quickly tell the story, best facts first, in no more than 30 seconds. You’ll have time for detail later.
  3. Mind=Blown: Why is this thing/topic amazing?
  4. Connection: Why do YOU respond to this topic or content? Does it connect to the bigger picture outside of the museum?
  5. Drop the mic: Maybe it’s a joke or a great last line. Button it all up, leaving your audience asking questions and wanting to continue the conversation.

I left the session inspired, making plans of how I was going to apply my newly learned hack at the State Museum and outlying state historic sites; knowing I now had the power to let the world know that NERDS ARE COOL. Ok, maybe not that much power, but I was pumped.