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.

Curators Gonna Curate

Not that long ago my younger brother was asked, “What’s your sister doing these days?” He replied, “She’s a museum curator.” The follow-up question was, “So, what does she do?” After a pause in which he choked on a fly that had flown into his mouth, he said, as if stating the obvious, “She . . . curates.” He relayed this conversation to me during a phone call and then had to ask, in all seriousness, “So what do you actually do as a curator?” My reply - “Herd cats,” (because this is my little brother, and little brothers don’t usually deserve serious answers).

Curator is a nifty umbrella term that comes from the Latin cura which means “to care.” This is why we have curators scattered all over museums, zoos, and art galleries. Wherever there is a large collection of items, there needs to be someone to take care of those things. This is a massive simplification of hundreds of jobs that require years of education and experience, but when you burrow down through the ponderous verbiage of bureaucratic job descriptions what you end up with is a lot of people who passionately care about obscure things and, for the most part, can’t wait to tell you about them.

Which is how we come to my job – Curator of Exhibits – because one of the more specific definitions of a curator is “one who selects and presents.” I am blessed, challenged, and frequently humbled by the task of selecting from tens of thousands of items from the collections of the State Historical Society and presenting them to the public through exhibits.

The first part of the selection process is to determine what type of story we want to tell. Is it specific, such as Guns of North Dakota?

Guns of North Dakota display case

Or is it broad and sweeping, like North Dakota: Yesterday and Today?

Soda Shop in the Inspiration Gallery: Yesterday and Today

The latter is the title of newest permanent exhibit that will open at the Heritage Center on November 2, 2014.

For the last two and a half years I’ve been part of a team that has worked to distill the story of North Dakota, and then tell that story through words, photos, and objects. This is the next step – what pieces do we put on exhibit? There is only so much room in exhibit galleries, and culling the list of possible objects is a long process of compromise. A colleague described it as “trying to decide which of your kids you love most.” And we want to show our “children” in their best light, so we also work to make sure the objects are safely displayed in an aesthetically pleasing manner that complements the larger story – that’s the “present” part.

We hope you’ll come join us November 2nd to see our newest exhibits, and we hope that you care about them as much as we do!

Adventures in Archaeology Collections: Fort Rice

If you could go into the archaeology collections storage, what would you find? Mostly a lot of boxes. If you could peek into those boxes, what would you see? Mostly a lot of bags! If you could look inside one of those bags, what would you see? You would finally find an object! Since it isn’t possible for everyone to visit all the collections (and even if you could, there would not be much that you could easily see), this is the perfect opportunity for an online collections tour! This week’s tour will take us through some of the collection from Fort Rice (32MO102), a state historic site in Morton County, North Dakota (

Why Fort Rice? Quite a few projects I have worked on recently have involved this site, so there happen to be a lot of fun photos available. Dr. Barbara Handy-Marchello recently gave a talk at the fall North Dakota Archaeological Association (NDAA) meeting about the lives of officers’ wives who lived at this fort, and she needed me to photograph specific objects for her presentation. In the meantime, I cataloged about 678 additional objects from the site.

The first Fort Rice was established in 1864 as part of a chain of military forts built to protect transportation routes in the region. In 1868 Fort Rice was expanded and used as a military post until it was finally abandoned in 1878. Most of the objects in our collection date to the time of the fort, though some of the objects are more recent. Others pre-date the presence of non-native peoples in the area.

What kinds of questions come to your mind when you look at these objects? I wonder what their stories would be if they could talk (or write their own blog)!

Dentalium shell beads, like these, come from the ocean. Who wore these beads?

Dentalium shell beads


Dentalium shell beads


These are stone end scrapers for preparing animal hides. What was made out of the hides that these helped prepare?

stone end scrapers

(2010.99.6885, .6881, and .6884)

There are a lot of beautiful glass beads from Fort Rice. Which color would you pick to wear and why?

glass beads from Fort Rice


I would pick the green beads. I like green!

green beads


Or maybe I would choose the blue glass beads–I also like blue!

blue beads


Or there is a bead with spots! Maybe I will just have to do a future post all about beads.

bead with spots


This boot was made for walking! Who wore this boot and where did they walk in it?



A metal spur. Did the person who wore this like riding fast? What was the horse’s name?

metal spur


A fragment of a ceramic plate or saucer. This would probably have been part of a fancy place setting. What dinner party conversations did it witness?

fragment of a ceramic plate or saucer


These are fragments of a doll’s tea set. Was this someone’s favorite toy?

fragments of a doll's tea set

(2010.99.6296 and .6295)

There are a lot of glass bottles in the Fort Rice collection. This is a close-up of a medicine bottle. The letters on the bottle read: USA HOSP DEPT. Who needed this medicine and why?

medicine bottle


Metal handcuffs. These look rather unpleasant. I wonder who had to wear these and for how long?

metal handcuffs


Where should we go next on our archaeology collections tour? Please let me know what kinds of artifacts or collections you would like to see in my next post!