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.


What does it take to become an engaging museum? This isn’t an easy nut to crack for most museums, but staff must learn how to tackle this problem. We spend a lot of time thinking about, researching, and gathering data to understand who is part of our audience and why—or why not. This work includes creating and conducting surveys, talking to visitors, and developing relationships. We also must try to identify people in our community who don’t already attend our programs and events, and work on ways to become relevant to them also. Just like any community, our audiences shrink, grow, and change over time too. We have to be willing to experiment with new techniques, ideas, and technologies to identify, develop, and engage our visitors and the communities we serve.

After we understand more about who our audience really is, the next step is to build a relationship with them. We want to keep them excited and coming back to see what we have in store for them next. Social media certainly plays a part in this work, but ultimately it takes vibrant programs and events to keep people excited. A great model of a site trying out new programs is the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, managed by Johnathan Campbell. The FGM is a house museum located in Bismarck that has been experimenting with new programs to see what might interest long-standing patrons, but also tap into the growing number of new residents in the area.

Former Governors' Mansion State Historic Site

Former Governors' Mansion State Historic Site

The FGM has done a lot to leverage social media in order to build relationships with people and has a very active Facebook page. In the past year they have held a variety of events that are old favorites like the annual ice cream social. They have also experimented with programming designed to reach new audiences. An example of this is work done with the North Dakota Women’s Network to promote education about women’s rights, equality, and voter education. They’ve also held a film series, had art and craft events, and hosted knitters.

FGM Knitting Brigade

Knitting Brigade - photo by Johnathan Campbell

Becoming an engaging museum starts with developing a deeper understanding of your audience, but it doesn’t stop there. Museums have come a long way in building their capacity to engage communities. We work to develop relationships with visitors and the larger community that, if done right, can effect transformative change on a community in a way that really matters. This is not always easy work and can be painful at times; however, the rewards are immeasurable and the time and effort are worth it. So if you ever have an opportunity to take a visitor survey or provide feedback, know that your comments can help develop richer museum programming and a more transformative experience for everyone.

How Do You Move A Car With Four Flats and No Gas Halfway Across Town Without Killing Anyone?

As the assistant curator of collections, I care for our state’s amazing history and natural history collections. I work with artifacts such as quilts, (thankfully disarmed) bombs, taxidermy, moon rocks, and any number of items in a given week. With a collection of nearly 70,000 artifacts, I see something that surprises me at least once a week.

Since October, one of my primary jobs has been to prepare collection artifacts before they go into the new galleries. But what goes into preparing the artifacts for those exhibits? I’d like to take you behind the scenes and show you just how much care went into one artifact you will see in the Inspiration Gallery this fall.

This 1929 Erskine Cabriolet, originally owned by a North Dakota woman, was bought for the Historical Society’s collection in 1955 with 30,000 miles on the odometer. It is currently installed in the museum’s Inspiration Gallery, which is opening to the public on November 2, 2014.

This 1929 Erskine Cabriolet requires a bit more care than most artifacts due its size. First, the staff assessed its condition and wrote a formal condition report to record the condition it was in before we put it on display. The report provides a baseline to identify any damage that occurs while the artifact is in the gallery. At that time it was decided the car needed to be cleaned, both so it looked nice for the exhibit and to identify any preservation issues that needed to be addressed. Our goal is to ensure that the artifacts in our care are around for as long as possible, and it’s a duty we take very seriously. Being a collection item, we couldn’t just run the Erskine through a touch-free car wash, so we had to use a gentler technique to get it ready for exhibit.

To remove dust from the exterior, we dipped rags in water, rang them out until they were slightly damp, and then gently patted the vehicle. While it is time consuming, patting (rather than scrubbing) prevents scratches to the finish and minimizes the risk of removing paint.

Before it could go on display, the Erskine needed a thorough cleaning. In this image, Curator of Collections Management Jenny Yearous and Intern Stephanie Templin dab the exterior with damp rags to remove dust. On the passenger side of the windshield, you can see a sticker with the letter “A”. It is a World War II gas ration sticker, which permitted the owner to buy up to four gallons of gas per week.

The interior of the vehicle is leatherette, cloth, wood, and unfinished metal, materials that don’t always react well to water. Instead of using damp rags, we vacuumed the interior to remove dust and debris while checking for signs of pests. That was repeated for the engine compartment and the rumble seat in the back.

Once it was clean, we needed to figure out how we were going to get it from our off-site storage facility back to the Heritage Center. We would never drive the Erskine, and even if we wanted to, none of the tires hold air anymore due to their age. We decided to contract with a moving company and use a tilt bed trailer to transport the car.; It was rolled onto the truck, then driven to the Heritage Center.

Moving day. A cable was attached to the car and a winch was used to pull the Erskine up onto the tilt bed. It was then secured to the trailer bed and driven to the museum.

Chief Preparator Bryan Turnbow thinks about the best way to get the car inside. If you look closely you can see how it was secured to the trailer, by tying it down at strong points of the frame and body. We didn’t want it rolling off the back or tipping during transport.

Once here, a wheeled jack was placed under each tire. Using a strap, the Erskine was pulled into the gallery by a forklift.

To get the car inside, wheeled jacks were placed under each tire and a strap was attached to a point on the rear end. On the right side of the image, you can see the forklift that was then used to pull the Erskine inside. Another staff member and I were at the front, pushing on the fenders and hood to help steer the vehicle. It was a relief when it was finally in place with no damage.

Here, you can see the Erskine in its final location in the partially completed Inspiration Gallery. Come see it at the grand opening on November 2nd!

The Erskine is one of 956 artifacts that are going into the Inspiration Gallery. It required a bit more care than most, but I hope it gives you an idea of just how much went into everything you see in our exhibits. Join us at our grand opening on November 2 to see the Erskine and much more!