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.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Objects connect us to our communities, our culture, and our history through the stories they help us tell. There are a lot of great techniques to spark fresh thinking about these objects and stories, and to help us become fully engaged in this process. In order to demonstrate a few of these ideas, I picked a random object from a colleague’s desk. It’s a tiny ceramic dinosaur, hand painted in shades of brown, green, and yellow.

Ceramic Dinosaur

First we can try out a standard description: Hand-painted ceramic dinosaur. It’s factual, but maybe a little dry. This is a good starting point, but we can take it further. Next, let’s think about writing an exhibit label for this little guy. The type of museum, and their mission, helps determine how an object is interpreted. A label in a children’s museum might look something like this: How did a Stegosaurus protect itself from other dinosaurs? A label in a science museum might look a bit more like this: Stegosaurus is a genus of armored stegosaurid dinosaur. A history museum might produce a label more like this: This ceramic dinosaur was made by the Whiteclay Pottery Company from 1904 to 1922. Not only does the museum type and mission matter, but we also need to know who our primary audience is going to be. First graders, college students, and paleontologists are each going to have different expectations of a label. Understanding our mission and audience make a big difference for what kind of text we create. We’ll have to work hard to make sure we are engaging as diverse a group as we can.

Other methods of writing about an object might seem a little silly, but they still serve an important purpose. Most importantly, we can push ourselves to go in new directions. Writing a short story about an object or in first person from the object’s perspective is a great activity to use with kids. Working individually or in groups, have them create a story for the dinosaur. We can also use this to incorporate several topics into a project including history, science, math, and art. We could use these techniques to focus on Stegosaurus anatomy, learn about the artist who created the dinosaur; or even to learn about how pottery was created in a particular community.

Now we can try some other creative writing techniques. Write a diary entry, a song, a play, a haiku, a limerick, or other poem either about the dinosaur, or from its perspective. Let visual learners paint a picture of the dinosaur. Have kids get up out of their chairs and move around like dinosaurs. Try tweeting as your object:

Stegosaurus @realspikes - 5m
Check out my show at the Met this weekend: Disarticulate This!


Museum professionals and teachers incorporate seemingly odd techniques like these with great results. These methods can be used with virtually any object in a museum collection, in a classroom setting, or from amongst family heirlooms. Even serious stories can be related through more creative thinking and engaging methods. Think about the endless stories a typewriter could tell—about people from your community (who used it); about businesses in your community (how was it used); and even about changing technologies (what came before it, what came after it). The only limits here are the ones we set for ourselves.

Potential Acquisitions

The Museum registration department is responsible for new acquisitions to the state’s museum collection, incoming and outgoing artifact loans, creating and upholding museum collections policies and procedures, and keeping track of the collections with regular inventories and database updates.

Does the Museum Division accept donations for the collection from the public? We receive about two hundred offers of various objects to the state’s museum collection every year. These collections may be one object or a hundred objects, and the items range from tractors to paintings to taxidermy. The Museum Collections Committee (MCC) meets twice a month and consists of staff from various fields including the museum collections care, exhibits, education, and historic sites, along with input from geologists, archaeologists, and others when deemed necessary. The MCC proposes to the Museum director what we should or should not accept for the state’s museum collection, with the Museum director making the final decision.

How does the MCC decide what to accept and what to decline? We ask potential donors to fill out a Potential Acquisition Questionnaire, found on our website at We want a detailed description of the objects, what is known about them, and how the items are related to North Dakota. The stories that come with the objects are just as important as the objects themselves. We ask our donors to provide as much information as possible about their donations and, if they exist, provide related photographs and documents in order to provide context. The objects being offered are then compared to the current museum collections. If we do not already have similar objects with similar stories, and we are sure we can properly care for the objects, we most likely will accept the offer.

If a donation is accepted for the museum collection, the donor signs a gift agreement that transfers legal ownership of the objects to the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Once we have a signed gift agreement, we arrange for transportation of the donation. We prefer not to have possession of any objects before the state actually owns them.

Although we cannot guarantee donated objects will go on exhibit, we do guarantee that your donation will be cared for to the best of our abilities. In addition, all objects are available to researchers and sometimes to other museums as a temporary loan. When museum studies interns are available, one of their projects is to create an exhibit case in the State Museum called “Recent Acquisitions” that showcases a few acquisitions from the previous year. The case currently on display includes a mailbox, a 1970s Milton Bradley board game called Sub Search, a cell phone, and a Boy Scout uniform. In the future, we will use this blog as a way to show additional recent acquisitions to the collection.

Below are three examples of recent acquisitions:

Grizzly Adams doll from the collection of the Ruth M. Haugen Ekland Estate. 2013.102.26

The doll, or some may call it an action figure, was part of a large donation offer of household items, children’s toys, and farm equipment from northeastern North Dakota. Grizzly Adams is a popular generational figure remembered by many from their childhoods.

Clell Gannon artwork donated by Carolyn Twingley. 2013.111.205

Clell Gannon was a North Dakota artist.  He not only created murals for the exhibits at the Liberty Memorial, the State Historical Society’s previous home, but also designed the Oscar H. Will & Co. seed catalog covers for many years.

Soft cradle donated by Elizabeth Cantarine. 2013.122.1

The soft cradle was made by the daughter of Andrew Ireland (Mary Comes Last) from Cannonball, ND. It won first prize for beadwork at the Fort Yates Fair in 1932. 

Any request to use the images should be requested by completing a “REQUEST FOR ONE-TIME USE OF PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGE” that can be found at: