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.

Preserving North Dakota’s history, one shelf at a time

The expansion of the North Dakota Heritage Center was a major investment in the preservation of the state’s history. From state-of-the-art storage areas to new State Museum galleries, we were given the tools needed to protect and present North Dakota’s story for decades to come. I’d like to share with you one way we’re using the expansion to safeguard those stories.

Wooden Drawers

The Native American collection was most recently housed in three rows of wooden drawers, all similar to what you see here.

North Dakota’s native people have always played an important role in the state's history, and the State Museum’s collection reflects that. Some of the earliest pieces we collected back in the early twentieth century were Native American in origin, and it is something that we have continued to build upon ever since.

During our recent expansion project, it was decided that the Native American collection would be the primary focus of our new, 5,000-square-foot collection storage area. The new space is a big improvement for the collection, because it went from occupying three rows of storage to 21, plus a restricted access room specifically created to house more significant or sensitive items. With more room and improved shelving, we can better care for and continue to expand on an already exemplary collection.

Panorama of new collection storage room

A panorama of our new collection storage room, which is initially committed to the Native American collection. In this image you can see that much of our new area contains compact, moveable shelving. Rows are accessed by rotating the black handles you see on the side of each unit, which causes the shelves to move along the tracks in the floor. That allows us to fit more rows of storage in the room than if they were stationary.

In October 2013, I started planning a basic layout for the new area and figuring out the scope of the project. After a few weeks of preparation, I began the move of the Native American collection to the new space. With nearly 4,000 artifacts involved, it was a challenging project to organize and wrap my head around. That is especially true given all the different types of artifacts such as beaded moccasins, hide dresses, firearms, preserved food, and even a birch bark canoe, just to name a few, each of which have unique needs and preservation concerns.

The original shelving units for the collection were filled many years ago and space was limited. This was our chance to store the collection exactly how we wanted it, and much thought was put into what we would do. We decided to arrange the new storage area into sections divided by type of artifact and also separated out by tribe within each section. That allows us to easily compare the differences between say, Sioux and Chippewa pipe bags. With similar objects grouped together, the layout also makes artifacts easier to find.

Enclosed cabinets and open shelving

Left: Here you can see one of our enclosed cabinets, which are ideal for objects such as clothing. Notice the gaskets around the doorframe. With these seals in place, the environmental conditions inside each cabinet are very stable. Also notice the labels on each shelf with tribe names. I organized the storage area by type of object, separated by tribe. That arrangement allows us to easily compare objects created by different tribes.
Right: A row of open shelving, which happens to contain various types of bags, pouches, and other containers.

I have spent the last 18 months moving the collection over to the new area, cartload by cartload. As of this writing, I have about 22 artifacts left to move. There is more work to be done in the space, but phase one is nearly complete!

Holes in History

When presenting the history of our historic sites, it can be difficult to cover everything that happened over the course of the site. Oftentimes significant events that occurred in the last 50 years or less get reduced to a couple words at the end of an interpretive sign that discusses a longer, older history. The Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site was built in 1884 for Bismarck Businessman Asa Fisher, who sold the building to the state in 1893 for use as the executive mansion. The interpretive history displayed at the site focuses on the years from 1893 to 1960, when it was occupied by 20 different governors and their families. If the Former Governors’ Mansion was opening as a historic site today, would the introduction to the history of the building be written differently? What if?

The North Dakota Psychiatric Clinic

In the post-World War II United States, a movement was gaining ground to end the incarceration of the mentally ill in state psychiatric hospitals. In 1946 President Harry Truman passed the National Mental Health Act, which paved the way for states to find ways to help the mentally ill cope, recover, and live positive lives.

The state of North Dakota was a progressive leader in the development of ways to help the mentally ill beyond locking them away for their own safety and that of the community. Legislative action in the 1950s led to the development of outpatient care at the State Hospital in Jamestown and to the opening of the State Psychiatric Clinic in Bismarck in 1960.

The clinic opened in the recently vacated Executive Mansion at 320 East Ave. B. Located in the heart of the residential section of Bismarck, the residence was an ideal, friendly, home-like environment to help those in need.

In 1963 the clinic was part of a national pilot program to develop standards of care and treatment for mental illnesses under President John Kennedy’s Community Mental Health Act., which officially ended the practice of incarcerating the mentally ill without due cause in the United States.

Oral histories collected from many of the professionals that worked at the clinic through-out the ‘60s show that the care provided at the clinic was one of a nurturing, respectable nature every bit as modern in its approach as today’s widely available talk therapy. While it varied over the course of the decade, the clinic generally had two psychiatrists, a psychologist, a couple of social workers, and support staff.

James Sperry exposing plywood

SHSND Superintendent James Sperry exposing the plywood separating the psychiatrist offices. (SHSND0071-009)

Those who utilized the clinic were not limited to what we would consider classic mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia), but what we would consider by modern standards to be general mental health. Common clientele would have included couples seeking marriage counseling, addiction counseling, children with behavioral issues, speech therapy, and developmental disabilities, etc. While many of the people at the clinic were voluntarily seeking help, many of them were court ordered to receive treatment. Prison inmates and children involved in delinquency cases were commonly evaluated for signs of mental illness and provided with treatment options.

In 1966 the clinic became one of eight state-run mental health clinics in North Dakota. To this day those eight clinics continue to serve the people of North Dakota’s mental health needs. In 1972 the clinic moved to the Liberty Memorial Building in downtown Bismarck. The Former Governors’ Mansion was then occupied by the Department of Health Administration offices until 1975, when the building was turned over to the State Historical Society of North Dakota as a state historic site, which now highlights the years it served as the Governors’ Mansion.

State Health Department

State Health Department Administration Office Building, circa 1975. (BPL41_12072007)

When visiting the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, or any historic site for that matter, keep in mind the history you see presented may be incomplete.The name of the site may only be an introduction to part of a longer history.

Guest Blogger: Johnathan Campbell

Johnathan CampbellJohnathan Campbell has been around the SHSND for around a quarter of a century. He has been the site supervisor for both the Former Governors’ Mansion, and Camp Hancock State Historic Sites for over a decade, and previous to that was the fossil preparator for the North Dakota State Fossil collection.