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 Historian’s Adventures in Entomology (aka “Other Duties as Assigned”)

I like to consider myself a historian specializing in textiles. I am in my element when I can talk to visitors about quilts or catalog a lovely dress. As curator of collections management here at the State Museum, I can also hold my own when it comes to talking about a variety of subjects from furniture to guns. Bugs are a whole different matter, however. While I have a background in science, the only thing I know about insects are which ones are dangerous to museum collections and the phone number for our pest control professional who can take care of them.

When we were offered and accepted a cabinet containing a collection of butterflies and moths, I was mildly concerned about cataloging them, but the opportunity to get a butterfly collection that represents the upper Midwest was too important to let those concerns get in the way. In the summer of 2021, I was able to find the perfect intern, a museum studies student with an interest in entomology. Mary Johnson, a graduate student at the Cooperstown Graduate Program at SUNY Oneonta, had exactly the background we needed to get the collection cataloged. Unfortunately, we could only fund the internship for 2 1/2 months, and there were well over 1,000 insects to identify and catalog! It was impossible for her to catalog the whole collection. (You can read about her project and others in this blog written by our interns last summer.) This meant someone would have to catalog the rest. But who? (Insert the sound of crickets chirping here. And no, they are not from the collection drawers!) As fate would have it, it fell on me—a history person, a textile person, and a quilter—to identify and catalog drawers full of butterflies and moths.

While butterflies are beautiful, they are way out of my sphere of knowledge. The butterflies I am used to working with look more like these and are embroidered with thread and yarn.

Close-up of quilts from the State Museum collection. SHSND 17662, 1981.93.1

Still, I had a couple of things going for me. First, collectors house like specimens together so a drawer might be one genus and the various species in that genus will be lined up together. Even so, when faced with a drawer like the one below, it can be a bit daunting for someone without an entomology background.

SHSND 2021.10.434-.467

My second help was that Mary made a guide for each drawer. She photographed the drawer and labeled or at least narrowed down the possibilities of which species the various groups of butterflies belonged to.

Lastly, some but not all of the specimens were identified by the collector. Some but not all also had collection locations identified, which helped when a species is found in a specific area.

Here is an example of a butterfly with full identifying information, including where and when it was found, its species, and who found it. SHSND 2021.10.461

But many specimens had little or no information.

Sorry, folks, but the “From Clyde” tag doesn’t help me much. SHSND 2021.10.455

When I was lucky and a butterfly’s species was noted on a tag, I could safely assume the butterflies in the same column were also of that species. When identifications didn’t agree, I felt I needed to verify the species. I also knew that as research has evolved, species names have changed; animals once thought to be different species might now be combined in the same species, or animals thought to be the same species might be separated due to what my untrained eye sees as a minor variation. With many of these specimens collected and identified nearly 50 years ago, changes were a possibility.

But how was I going to verify the identification? I did what anybody else would do—I turned to the internet. In the past, internet searches have helped me with everything from how to tie a necktie to how to wear a Bohemian folk costume to the names for various parts of a saddle, and I was hoping it wouldn’t let me down when it came to identifying butterflies. I found many websites. Some were scientifically written and over my head; others were geared toward kids and way too simple. A few were written for folks like me using plain English with enough detail to help me identify different species. Even with the collector’s notes, Mary’s notes, and help from websites, trying to decide if a specimen was an eastern tiger swallowtail, a Canadian tiger swallowtail, or a western tiger swallowtail wasn’t easy.

“Other duties as assigned” is a broad category I never would I have thought would include butterfly identification. But the task turned out to be an interesting adventure for this historian and has given me a better appreciation for the work of all scientists.

Bismarck’s 150th Anniversary Celebrated in New State Archives Exhibit

Summer is in full swing here in the State Archives, and patrons are busy engaging with our collections to answer their various research questions. This year also marks the 150th anniversary of Bismarck’s founding. To celebrate the occasion, the Archives reference team took on the task of selecting photographs from our collections to be part of a new exhibit in the corner of the reading room dedicated to former State Archivist Gerald Newborg. We affectionately call this space the “Newborg Nook.”

This space has two chairs and serves as a quiet place for people to sit and take in the reading room, as well as browse our selection of periodicals. It is also a space where small, temporary exhibits are put up to invite visitors to learn more about the topics covered in our holdings.

Prior to the new exhibit, this area hosted an exhibit on the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which granted women full suffrage in the United States. In considering what should go up in this space next, the Archives reference team concluded that the 150th anniversary of Bismarck was timely and would allow us to highlight photographs and other materials from our collection that deal with the city.

We went through our digitized images on Digital Horizons and our Photobook site and narrowed these down to our favorite ten. We also reflected upon what was significant to include in terms of local landmarks. Thus the former and current Capitol buildings, the Northern Pacific rail bridge, the Bismarck Civic Center, Kirkwood Mall, downtown, and residential scenes all found a place in our narrative. The resulting exhibit illustrates how Bismarck, initially named Edwinton, has changed over time and captures the richness of 150 years of history.

Andrew Kerr, one of our new media specialists in the Audience Engagement & Museum Department, worked his magic and put many of the images and captions onto large wall stickers that make the wall pop. This colorful design, featuring the palette used for the city’s 150th anniversary celebration in the spring, also included some mounted images to give the exhibit three-dimensional characteristics. Andrew did a great job with the installation, and it looks amazing.

This collaborative effort resulted in a cool little exhibit you will want to check out when visiting the reading room and features some books on Bismarck from our collections, including The Bismarck-Mandan Encyclopedia and the three-volume series Bismarck-Mandan Memories, that you can read while relaxing in the space. Be sure to check out the exhibit while it is up and keep an eye out for future exhibits in the space in coming years.