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.

Working Together

As a historian, I was very comfortable researching and writing topics for eighth grade North Dakota Studies curriculum North Dakota: People Living on the Land ( That is, I was comfortable until I faced Unit 1, which runs from the Paleozoic Era to A.D. 1200 I had much to learn about paleontology.

I turned to now-retired State Paleontologist John Hoganson. Hoganson’s articles and books are written for non-paleontologists. I interviewed John and read his publications. With his help, I developed a plan to bring paleontology into the eighth-grade curriculum.

While I was working on Unit 1, the Heritage Center expansion was underway. Another paleontologist, Becky Barnes, temporarily occupied a desk just a few feet from mine. I was fortunate to be within “hollering” distance of a paleontologist. I could have inquired in a loud voice, “Becky, how is Xiphactinus pronounced?”


The Xiphactinus was a predatory fish, 18 feet long, with immense fangs. Fossilized remains of a Xiphactinus that lived 85 to 65 million years ago were found in Cavalier County. 10.12.13.

But, I found that a trip to Becky’s desk offered other opportunities I had not imagined.

Becky is a paleontologist and an artist. She paints many images for the State Museum and paleontology publications. One day, I strolled over to her desk and found her working on an illustration of how sediment was laid down and how geological shifts and erosion had left the earth’s surface looking like what we see today. That illustration, “A Piece of Cake,” was modified and included in People Living on the Land.

I worked with people in all divisions of the State Historical Society to develop a well-rounded curriculum. I turned to the Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division (AHP) for help with prehistory. I took an archaeology course once, so I wasn’t completely ignorant, but I depended on the division staff to direct me to pertinent research reports and photographs, guide me in the right direction, and answer my endless questions. State Archaeologist Fern Swenson encouraged me to use archaeological evidence to determine the ending date of Unit 1. Historians commonly use 1492 and the arrival of Columbus to divide prehistory from history. But Fern convinced me that A.D. 1200 is a better date for North Dakota Studies because that is when Menoken Village was occupied.

Menoken Indian Village

Menoken Village, located a few miles east of Bismarck on Apple Creek, was occupied around 1200 A.D. The palisade wall and the remains of earthlodges indicate that it was a permanent village.

The village is the earliest known permanent village site in North Dakota.

Ration ticket

This ration ticket, for the last three months of 1900, indicates that Blue Blanket was the single mother of two boys. She received general rations (flour, salt, etc) and beef. Museum 381.2.

We wanted to include museum objects that could tell a story or illustrate a point. Jenny Yearous, Museum curator, helped me out one day when she brought out a bundle of ration tickets that had been used on the Fort Berthold Reservation. The ration tickets seemed a curiosity and a good illustration for reservation history. Further research indicated that the tickets told a profound story about the transition from a pre-reservation life of hunting and gardening to a life of poverty and dependence by 1900. Research in the federal Indian census produced more information and brought to life the families listed on the ration tickets.

With friendly advice from all divisions of the State Historical Society, the curriculum creditably covers 500 million years of history. By the way, Xiphactinus is pronounced zy FACT in us.

You Can’t Have It All, But You Can Come Close

It’s a situation most people have encountered, and it goes something like this: “Hey! I need you to complete (insert project of your choice) in a really short amount of time, and by the way, we have little to no budget. Not a problem, is it?” As small non-profits, museums regularly find themselves in this conundrum. In the Exhibits department we call it the holy trinity: fast, cheap, and great. Most of the time, however, you can only reasonably be expected to achieve two.

  • Fast + cheap ≠ great
  • Cheap + great ≠ fast
  • Great+ fast ≠ cheap

Trinity - Fast, Cheap, Great

So what can you do? In the absence of superpowers, we’ve integrated a number of techniques into our daily exhibit operations to help us get closer to the “impossible utopia” of fast, cheap, and great.


Henry Ford’s great success as an automobile manufacturer came from standardizing everything – methods, parts, and tools. As much as possible we have standardized the hardware and material we use in building exhibits. This provides many benefits: eliminates the possibility of error, easier to remember components when designing, and it’s cheaper to buy in bulk. Being more efficient saves resources – time and money – neither of which we ever have enough of.

Reuse and Recycle

It’s not just fashionable to go green, but it saves resources. We always take a look at our existing inventory first and ask, “How can we re-purpose it?” But, if we need to buy something new, we plan for its reuse and buy high quality. The initial expense is made up in its longevity.

KISS (keep it simple stupid)

This applies to so many things, but especially exhibits. We design components to be not only durable but easily fixable – because nothing can withstand a determined five-year-old. Our most utilized designs are ones that we’ve used for years because they have withstood the test of time. We also keep in mind who will be maintaining and repairing the components; the repair has to be within their ability.

Learn from History

It’s okay to stop using something if it doesn’t work, even if it’s been around for years. We have started to consciously plan to our existing resources. It seems self-evident, but checking to make sure an exhibit case will move through a doorway and can be moved by two people saves a lot of heartburn later.

Although these techniques were developed for exhibit production they can be applied to many other areas. Ta Da!