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.

The North Dakota State Fossil Collection

Deep within the bowels of the Heritage Center in Bismarck is a room with great riches. It contains items of staggering age and scientific value. This room contains the North Dakota State Fossil Collection. From giant swimming lizards to “trumpeting” mastodons, from specimens mounted on pins to those needing forklifts to move, the North Dakota State Fossil Collection contains a wealth and variety of specimens (fig. 1). It has been twenty years since the State Fossil Collection was created in 1989 and it has grown in leaps and bounds since then.


This image shows only a small variety of fossils found in the North Dakota State Fossil Collection.

North Dakota Geological Survey (NDGS) geologists had been picking up fossils during the course of their fieldwork since the inception of the Survey in 1895. Those specimens were typically incorporated into the geology department collection. Prior to 1981, the only fossil collections in North Dakota were teaching and research collections at the universities made by faculty, students, and amateur collectors. However, in 1981 Dr. John Hoganson was hired by the NDGS. At that time the NDGS began what is now referred to as the Fossil Resource Management Program, and the recovery of fossils by the NDGS began in earnest. Although not yet officially the “State Fossil Collection,” between 1981 and 1989 North Dakota’s “fossil collection” grew to a small accumulation (a few hundred specimens) of fossil vertebrates and invertebrates. When the main office of the Geological Survey was moved from Grand Forks to Bismarck in 1989, this small collection only required a few cabinets for storage space.

Over the last 20 years, the State Fossil Collection has grown exponentially and now contains approximately 6,100 cataloged specimens (with more being added all the time) and 3,800 fossil localities. It is difficult to give even a rough estimate of how many cataloged and uncataloged specimens are in the State Fossil Collection at this time. The collection now contains plant, invertebrate and vertebrate fossils, and also contains a large rock and mineral collection. After nearly 10 years in the Johnsrud Paleontology Laboratory under the auditorium, it was obvious that we had again outgrown our space. In 2009 the state legislators saw the need to expand the North Dakota Heritage Center and signed a bill allocating money to put a new addition on the current building. Over the years the collection has moved from Grand Forks to Bismarck, and then within Bismarck it has moved twice. With each move the storage space for collections has nearly tripled in size (fig. 2).

Office Layout

Size comparison between North Dakota Heritage Center lab and collection spaces. A) Lab and collection space used between 1991 and 2000. B) Lab and collection space used between 2000 and 2014. C) Lab and collection space currently in use since May 2014.

Although the state collection is very young (some of the older collections in the United States have been around for more than 100 years), we have a very important representation of Cretaceous, Paleocene, and Oligocene fossils not found in very many other museums across the country. This is something we are trying to expand on during every field season. Although many don’t know it, as you walk through the new Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time, there are great riches just below your feet.

You Got Your Science In My History!

Do you remember the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials? A couple of people bump into each other, mingling their chocolate and peanut butter snacks? Initially they are irritated with each other, but then they discovered the tasty goodness of combining the two treats. I think of those old ads every time I hear people asking why history museums need to add science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to their regular programming. STEM is more than a trend or a buzzword. What seems to really be new about the STEM concept is the realization that we need to do more to engage students. This includes developing new ways of getting excited about subjects that are vital for a well-rounded education, and meet the needs of our modern workforce. This seemingly new push to include STEM curriculum into museum programming can initially cause some frustration. However, I like to think of it as my job to help people see the delightful new things we can now enjoy together.

Hesperornis and Xiphactinus

Hesperornis and Xiphactinus are part of a nice science buffet in the new galleries.

So what does all of this have to do with history, and why does the State Historical Society of North Dakota care about STEM? Well, I’d like to challenge you to take history out of the science classroom or try to take science out of the history museum. I don’t think it can really be done without sacrificing something special and leaving us with substandard subject matter. Using science as an example, most textbooks have sidebars to explain why people such as Marie Curie and Albert Einstein are important to the field. Science classes also usually dig into how the field has changed and developed over time and how new research has added to or challenged previous understandings. That all speaks to the importance of using historical thought to help develop a well-rounded science class. In turn, we can take our students into the new Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples at the North Dakota Heritage Center and look at all the ways to think about STEM in a museum context.

Stone tool and tipi

Left: A stone tool demonstrates the technological skill of early peoples.
Right: Tipis and earthlodges are perfectly engineered for living on the prairie landscape.

There is the technology involved in flintknapping to make stone tools. There is science involved in brain-tanning animal hides. There is math involved in figuring out how much food needs to be stored to get your community through a hard winter. We even have the engineering involved in building a home on the prairie.

Activity in grain bin

This exhibit in a grain bin is a great showcase for featuring the rich agricultural history of our state.

Music, literature, and art are also all represented in the new galleries. Need writing prompts for students? Our galleries are full of them. Interested in getting kids to think about nutrition for a health class? Spend some time in our galleries learning about traditional foodways of the Native Americans and immigrants who have lived here. Need an opportunity to connect urban students to where their food comes from? We’ve got you covered.

No matter what you are learning about, we have objects and artifacts that can help make a topic relevant for students. Even if you don’t think your topic is history-related, the history is probably all over it, making for a great intellectual treat.