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.

“You Mean, We Already Had A 'Triceratops'?”

In the previous Corridor of Time exhibit, there was a 6 foot long skull that for the most part went unnoticed. How is that possible? I’m glad you asked! It shared a platform with two Dromaeosaurus, and sat about 4 feet off the ground. The jacket (the plaster & burlap surrounding the fossil) was placed flat into the surface. It was a view most people were unused to seeing such a large skull in, and so it was overlooked.

In the new Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time, that problem has been solved. The skull now sits propped up, surrounded by rock, and extremely visible next to our full-size Triceratops skeleton cast. This is the story of how it got there.

When the original display was dismantled, we had two main goals. First we needed to do additional restoration of the skull. Second, we had to figure out how to better display it. In the time between the original skull restoration many years ago, and preparing for the new exhibit, our paleontology lab had acquired new tools for cleaning, one is called a microblaster. Think sandblaster, only using baking soda instead. Why baking soda? Well, if you look at the particles under a microscope, you will see they’re actually pointed and jagged – but not so abrasive as actual sand. Generally fossils we clean with the microblaster are placed in a blasting box with a filter hooked up to collect all the dust. The Triceratops skull was much too large, and too heavy, to fit inside even our largest blasting box. We had to create a makeshift shield that would collect the wayward dust, and not spread it everywhere… We succeeded, and removed the last bits of dirt (which we call matrix) from around the bone, exposing the beautiful natural chocolate color of the fossil.

The skull is so fragile and heavy, there isn’t a good way to remove it from its plaster jacket cradle. So, to display the fossil, we would have to include all the plaster and wood frame that supported it. Some of our display bases and forms were created by an exhibits company, including the metal frame that now hides below the skull, propping it up. We couldn’t just leave it like that however. Wanting to draw attention to the fossil, away from the support materials, we decided to build a fake rock wall around it. It needed to be light, yet durable, and still look like rock. This took a many-step process of measuring, creating a pattern, cutting the pieces out of foam, making sure they fit, then covering the whole thing with a sculpting epoxy. Adding difficulty to this process is the fact that the skull, now in its permanent home, was upstairs in the new gallery, and our fabrication area for building the wall was downstairs!

With the rock wall now painted and in place, the Triceratops skull looks like it is nestled in the rock outcrop it was originally excavated from.

Moving the "Triceratops" skull with a forklift – people at the ready to help hold it in place.

The skull is in place! This is why it needed a little faux-rock makeover.

The guts of the rock wall – insulation foam, sculpting epoxy, sand, and paint.

Nearly complete – just needs a dab of paint.

Fossil skull and rock wall (right) next to "Triceratops" skeleton cast (left).

What is an Archives?

When I started working at the State Historical Society (as an intern in the summer of 2006; two years later, I became fulltime staff), I had been in the building before, but not behind the scenes. I received a whirlwind tour just a few weeks prior to being hired. It seemed like a huge maze. So the night before I started, I had this dream in which I wandered the underbelly of the Historical Society for days, coming across various “camps” (I can only assume this referred to our different divisions, like Archaeology and Historic Preservation, the Museum, and of course the Archives, where I was headed), where people were dressed in late 1800-style period clothing, living off the land, lighting camp fires, singing old songs to the stars above….

Needless to say, it’s not really like that here, although I have no problem donning vintage costumes (and at various times, I have). For a facility dealing with the historic, we stay relatively modern. In fact, the Archives gained its portion of our present expansion in 2007. (FYI—the term “Archives” can be both singular and plural. This post relates to the Archives as a location, and as it is one location, I will be using it in the singular form). We mainly received more elbow room, gaining a meeting area, office spaces and doubling the storage capacity…though we also increased the size of our public research area, the Orin G. Libby Memorial Reading Room, by the amount of one cozy nook.


This is the size of our cozy nook. It is named after Gerald Newborg, who was the State Archivist at the time. We planned to put some displays in here; right now, we have images from the Myron H. Bright Manuscript Collection (MSS 11075) up on the walls. This collection includes political ephemera and photographs. You can read more about the collection here on our website.

Two of my coworkers and I work in the Reading Room in shifts, assisting patrons with their research in person and through email, phone and regular mail. I also work with our audio collections, conduct oral history interviews, and do other tasks as assigned—such as giving tours of the Archives.

Whenever groups visit, I like to ask if anyone knows what an Archives is. Typically, very few hands go up in the air. A hesitant answer is given—“I think you have books?”

Yes, we have books. And journals, periodicals…


Head of Technical Services Rachel White reported the Archives recently accessioned its 100,000th book into the collections. We also have approximately 1800 different titles of periodicals. A selection of these books can be found in our Reading Room, but most of them are stored in the temperature-controlled stacks area.

Photographs, maps, audio and video footage…

Archives Specialist Lindsay Schott is cleaning some film that she is working with in her office. The audio and video collections are selectively digitized as staff time permits. They, plus the photo collections and microfilm masters, are stored in a temperature-controlled area. The freezer located in this space does not hold ice cream, unfortunately, but does a good job of stopping deterioration of film that is in pretty bad shape. We keep acetate and nitrate films and photo negatives in the freezer.

Not to mention the loads upon loads of manuscript collections, local government records, state government records…

Our collections are stored in the stacks area. We have over 100 rows of compact shelves which roll back and forth, allowing us to store more collections in a smaller space. Collections that are stored on the higher shelves have to be retrieved through use of a ladder if you are of average size or shorter, such as I am. You can see different sizes of boxes here; we fit the box to the collection. If we need to add to it, we are always able to do so.

Did I forget newspapers?

We receive daily and weekly newspapers from each county around the state. We store them until we have enough to put on a roll of microfilm. Newspapers are essentially acidic, so we microfilm them to preserve them. You can learn more about that here.

You get the drift.

Here in the Archives, we strive to collect and protect these types of “flat” materials. We’re sort of like a paper museum. Not a museum made out of paper—that could get messy. Especially during a spring thaw! But just like a museum, we collect, store, and provide access to items that document the past. We try to give our objects the longest, happiest life possible. We keep them cool and dry, in a darkened environment. We house them in boxes, folders and sleeves. And then we try to make them as accessible as possible.

Of course, everything at the State Historical Society of North Dakota relates directly to North Dakota, Dakota Territory, and the Northern Great Plains, so you probably won’t see your cousin’s step-father’s friend-from-Oklahoma’s family pedigree chart here. However, you can listen to Francis Densmore’s recordings of Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan; you can view a newspaper from Grafton, North Dakota, from 1882 (on microfilm); you can search through scanned images of North Dakota’s past.

Once you overcome the maze, you start to learn how much there is to discover. You will see the “secrets” each division holds—the keys to our past, present, and future.