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.

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:

“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).