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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

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 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!

Life of a Fossil: From Death to Exhibit

Have you ever thought about how the many dinosaurs on exhibit in museums across the country got there? What is the journey taken from the time the animal dies until it goes on display? Do all animals become fossils? If the path to becoming a fossil begins at the moment of death, then every plant and animal must run a gauntlet of forces, any of which can stop the process of fossilization.

Picture a Triceratops during its last day on Earth. After giving up the ghost (so to speak), a plethora of forces will begin attacking the future fossil.

First, the Triceratops might be exposed to animals that would like to make a meal out of its remains. This would include scavengers spreading the remains across a large area, wind and rain eroding away the remains, or even small insects and bacteria eating away at the bones. Ultimately, the remains need to be buried quickly, ushering them away from all these potential hazards.

Next, the remains must stay buried for thousands to millions of years. The main forces to avoid during this period are geological. The bones/fossils must survive all the geological forces that could potentially destroy them. These include mountain building, volcanoes, earthquakes, erosion, and landslides (to name only a few).

So is that it? Now that the bones have become fossils, they just wind up in the museum for us to enjoy, right? Not quite.

Now it is time for the remains to come to the surface. This step is really about timing. The fossils must be exposed on the surface and be discovered. Sounds easy enough right? Well, there is a catch. Not only do they need to be visible but they need to be visible to someone who recognizes them for what they are…fossils.

4-step fossilization process

Visual representation of the fossilization process

Did dinosaurs recognize the fossils being exposed at their feet during their time walking the planet? Would you be able to recognize a fossil in the ground if you saw one? More to the point, would you be able to recognize a small part of an exposed fossil in the ground? Often, when fossils are discovered, only a fraction of the bone is exposed, while the rest is still buried under the surface. The fossils must be collected before the elements have had a chance to erode them away. How many fossils of ancient animals simply disappeared because they were exposed at the surface at the wrong time? How many fossils of shells, fish, or ancient reptiles did the dinosaurs destroy because they were walking on them?

Lastly, if you found the partially exposed fossil and recognized it for what it was, could you get it out of the ground intact? Someone could find the most beautiful or significant fossil ever discovered, but if they can’t get it out of the ground without it breaking into dozens or more pieces, they have only a useless pile of fragments-- not something that could go on display at a museum.

The final leg of the journey is entirely reliant on humans. The collected fossils now must travel safely back to a lab or museum, be removed from the remaining rock/dirt matrix, and still be in good enough shape to go into an exhibit. This often means not only the quality of the fossil must be good, but the fossil must also fit into the theme of the exhibit.

T. rex and Triceratops skeleton casts

The dinosaur exhibit at the ND Heritage Center State Museum

The next time you walk through a fossil exhibit, I hope you remember that all the fossils you see on exhibit traveled this path. Do you ever think about what we are leaving future humans to discover about us?