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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!

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.

Osteoderm Fossils: More than Skin Deep

For most people, the first things they think about when they hear the word “fossil” are bones from some ancient creature. Considering the hard parts of animals fossilize more easily than the soft parts, they have good reason to think so. But did you know that skin can fossilize as well? It is rare, but with the right set of circumstances (the animal is buried quickly, and dries out), paleontologists can find patches of skin. Sometimes, like in the case of Dakota the Dinomummy (an Edmontosaurus on display in the ND Heritage Center & State Museum), paleontologists can find a LOT of skin.

Today, I’d like to write talk about something in between. It’s not a skeleton, but it is bone. And it’s not skin, but it helps shape and support the skin. It’s something called an osteoderm — literally “bone skin.” An osteoderm is a deposit of bone material found within the dermis (skin) of some animals, generally covered by a thicker keratin sheath (the same material that makes up your hair or fingernails). The keratin covering is generally called a “scute.” Different animals have evolved osteoderms, from lizards and frogs to dinosaurs. Rather than focus on an obscure group of animals, however, I’d like to use crocodiles as an example, since most people can visualize them a little easier.

Crocodilian leather with osteoderms

I just *happen* to have some crocodilian leather with osteoderms in place.

If you can imagine crocodile skin (or if you can’t, just look at the image above), it is made up of many square scales. Osteoderms are located under the largest of these scales/scutes. Most of the time when crocodile or alligator skin is harvested for use in the clothing industry, those bony plates are removed in order to insure flexible leather, so people don’t really get the chance to feel the natural armor. The scute is left behind, giving us the look of a large scale, without the backing of bone.

Osteoderms are one of my favorite pieces to find on a fossil dig. They’re small, compact, look like Swiss cheese on the top, and clean up well. In 2013, as we wandered through a fossil site after a rainstorm, I let my eyes wander. As my gaze travelled down one of the now-dry rivulets, I saw six squares of white. Fossils, when they sit out in sunlight for a while, may change color or become bleached. I blinked. Sure enough — I was looking at six little osteoderms all in a row!

Erosional rivulet with osteoderms

Erosional rivulet containing osteoderms bleached white from the sunlight.

Bleached osteoderm

Close-up of bleached osteoderm.

Another site we visit on occasion called Whiskey Creek contains dozens to hundreds of osteoderms. Some are small, and others the size of a large belt buckle. If you’re ever out with us when we find these, you may hear us say “scute” instead of “osteoderm.” This isn’t a slip of the tongue; yes, we know that it’s technically an osteoderm. It’s just more fun (and faster) to say scute than osteoderm. Scute scute scute!

Osteoderm in situ

Osteoderms in situ at Whiskey Creek. The smooth side faces inward, and the Swiss cheese side faces the outside of the animal.

Holding a piece of osteoderm

Mid-sized osteoderm, with hand for scale.