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!

Weird or Cool?: Three Experiences From A New Employee

When I started as the assistant curator of Collections last August, I knew there would be a learning curve, and I am excited to share some of my memorable experiences.

1. Preventative Conservation (aka dusting): Ever walk into the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum galleries and think, “Gee, I wonder who cleans this stuff?” Turns out, it’s me! Let’s be clear, the custodial staff work hard daily to keep the whole building clean. But it’s my job to clean the artifacts on exhibit. All galleries are ideally cleaned every three months. Any artifacts not enclosed in casework are dusted with cotton cloths, soft brushes, or a low-suction vacuum. Preventative maintenance like this discourages pest activity from bugs and rodents, and ensures the long-term stability of the artifacts. And ultimately, I get to dust a mastodon.

aerial view of mastodon skeleton

A view from the top. Dusting the mastodon.

Verdict: Cool, definitely cool


2. Moving Large Artifacts: SHSND has off-site storage buildings to house large items like cars, farm equipment, and buggies. This means when large items are going on display, staff need to move them from one side of town to the other. I experienced this when we moved a rural mail cart for The Prairie Post Office exhibit (on display now in the James E. Sperry Gallery!). This required a forklift, an experienced forklift driver (THANKS Bryan Turnbow, chief preparator), and many spotters.

moving artifacts

Out for delivery. Staff moving a rural mail cart.

Verdict: Weird but cool


3. Teeth in A Grenade Launcher Box: Sometime in the past, someone decided to store old dental equipment–including FAKE TEETH–in an empty WWI German grenade launcher box. When we discovered this, it was a shock to say the least. Staff–mostly Elise Dukart, assistant registrar - took time sorting grenade launcher tools from dental tools. She wants you to know it was harder than you think. Mixed-up items like this are found every now and then. Sorting them out allows for better documentation of the State’s collection. Not to mention better storage for fake teeth.

vintage trunk opened with artifacts inside

The teeth’s old home.

fake teeth

The teeth’s new home. Don’t worry, they’re fake.

Verdict: Definitely weird

Field Trips: Setting the Hook for Life-long Engagement

I have always been a storyteller. My notebooks from school contained bits of stories or skits, things I found amusing, or ideas that would not leave my head until I had them down on paper. I still carry a notebook for that reason. My love of storytelling was a part of what made me an engaging teacher. Like a good story, I had to hook my audience. Right now, my focus is on field trips and how we can create a memorable experience. Students are not going to remember all of the facts that you try to cram into a visit, but they will remember an activity or experience they can’t do anywhere else. Some sites come with a built-in hook. The Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site is a great example. Where else can you go 50 feet underground and see the keys that could start a nuclear apocalypse? That is my hook. Once hooked, we can dive deeper into the history, stories, and people. But just like fishing, you often need more than one lure, and that is what our sites are currently developing.

Several of our sites are currently working on revamping what happens on a field trip. We want to move past the formula of watch this video, follow these rules, and complete this worksheet disguised as a scavenger hunt. These sites are developing hands-on activities and programs to engage students. Up at Pembina, they are working on creating a game that simulates the fur trade. It is still in development, but once completed, it should make for a great learning experience. The Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site is developing new educational days where students can learn about rockets and UAVs (drones).

Museum staff with fur collection piece

Site Supervisor Jeff Blanchard shows off some of the props collected for Pembina State Museum's fur trading activity to Sites Manager Rob Hanna.

Programs are not the only solution. Take all of the new changes coming to the Stutsman County Courthouse. A hands-on exhibit that teaches about civics and the role of elected government officials people tend to vote for while not know what the position even does is a fantastic learning tool I wished existed when I was teaching government. This highly original new exhibit has the potential to reach kids outside of a historical context. We added LED lighting to show off the marvelous mechanisms of these magnificent machines and inspire the mechanically minded student. The history may not hook them, but the engineering might. I have the pleasure of touching up the paint on the courthouse's new 1908 Burrows Adding machine. I am not going to lie. I could have finished it in a day, but I am taking my time so that it can spend more time on my desk. It is that cool.

man works on vintage typewriter

Art fabricator Jonah Eslinger designed and installed LEDs into a typewriter for the new civics exhibit at Stutsman County Courthouse.

But not every school is going to be able to travel to all of our sites. The Chateau de Mores is most likely never going to give a field trip to students in Fargo. We need to address that. For the past few months, we have been working on developing a new program we are calling Ask-an-Expert. Using Skype, our fantastic content experts at the sites will be able to engage with classes across the state. The idea is simple. Our sites have created a list of topics that connect their site themes with the content covered in North Dakota Studies. Teachers can introduce the content to their students, have them think up questions, and then as a class call-in and have students ask their questions to experts. It is still in development, but we have run a few tests, and we were excited to see students engaging in historical thinking. In the next month or so, we hope to have some more information for teachers on how they can take part in testing this program out with us. We are excited by the potential and the possibility of expanding our offering and working towards adding full-fledged virtual field trips of sites.

Field trips allow students to see the concepts that they are learning in school in action. For some students, it may be the first time that they experience a museum, historic site, science center, or wiring closet. (Yes, I took several field trips to check out wiring closets.) We have an excellent opportunity to create lifelong museum-goers. All we need to dangle the hook and see what bites.