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.

Recent Acquisitions to Museum Collections

About 99% of the museum collection is donated gifts from North Dakota residents and former residents who wish to preserve the history of the state. Not all offers can be accepted, but below are some of the donation offers admitted into the museum collection so far this year.


Bloom, Darlene - 2014.00064, Shoe Brush

Shoe Brush

Shoe brush donated by Darlene Bloom. 2014.00064

Originally the brush was owned by the donor’s grandparents, John and Christina (Schmidt) Wagner of Mercer, who came to the US from Germany. It was later used by the donor’s parents to prop open a window in the house for 50 years! This shoe brush was given as a gift to families that subscribed to Der Staats-Anzeiger. Printed in North Dakota, Der Staats-Anzeiger translates to “The State Gazette” in English. The newspaper was printed in both German and English from 1906 until 1969. Families in America could send letters to their relatives in Germany and Russia through the newspaper. The State Archives has microfilms of Der Staats-Anzeiger, for those interested in learning more about the newspaper.


Norderhaug, Liv – 2014.00079, Cocktail Dress

Cocktail Dress

Cocktail dress donated by Liv Paulson Norderhaug. 2014.00079

The black cocktail dress pictured was owned by the donor’s mother, Joyce Adeline Jalbert, and would have been worn to dances at The Flagstone Terrace Supper Club in Bowman, ND. This black dress was bought from a boutique in Dickinson, ND, called “Helen’s” in the early 1960s. Trips to Dickinson were a treat for the donor and her siblings, because they were able to shop for new clothes, eat at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, and finish at “Baker Boy Bakery” for chocolate frosted brownies! The dress was made by a Californian dressmaking company called Emma Domb, known for making prom and party dresses.


Hurd, Barbara – 2014.00056, Quilt


Quilt donated by Barbara Hurd. 2014.00056

Made in 1857 by Sara Waybright Ridgeway, the quilt pictured here is the oldest quilt from Foster County, North Dakota. The donor remembers the quilt being owned by her great aunt Myrtle Ridgeway, who was married to Judge Pierce Roberts in Carrington, ND. Her first time seeing the quilt was when she was a teenager, and her Great Aunt Myrtle pulled it out of a cedar trunk at the foot of her bed. She would not see the quilt again until five years ago, when she found it in a cedar chest at her mother’s house, along with a front page newspaper article about the quilt in The Independent. The donor decided the quilt needed to stay in North Dakota, where its beauty could be preserved and shared by all.


Anton, Amy – 2014.00020, Dollhouse


Dollhouse donated by Amy Anton. 2014.00020

This beautiful doll house was handmade by Otto and Ginger Knapp from Bismarck, ND, in the 1970s. Otto was born in Temvik, ND in 1916, while Ginger Haux was born in McClusky, ND in 1933. They married in 1952 and raised six children in Bismarck; just half a block north of the capitol! Everything from the windows to the furniture was handmade by the Knapps. The handrails and siding of the house are made with popsicle sticks that have been sanded and varnished. All the beds have hand-sewn pillows, pillow cases and sheets. The cupboards are stocked with miniature bowls, plates, pots, and pans. One of the cabinets even has tiny books and papers stacked on the shelves. At one time the grandfather clock used to work, because it was made from a watch.


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.