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.

Moving Collections

Moving priceless objects can be daunting. Depending on the object, simply moving a rare or priceless object from one table to another or even shifting it a few inches or feet can be stressful. Moving thousands of priceless objects over 300 feet is even more daunting; moving priceless objects under a time schedule, even more so; moving priceless objects under a time schedule, through a construction zone, even more yet. However, with proper planning it can be done.

In the early days of planning the Heritage Center expansion it was quickly discovered that the State Fossil Collection was potentially in harm’s way with all the construction going on in and around the building. Not necessarily from a large piece of machinery or debris, but instead from possible exposure to the elements of nature (water and steeply fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels). Both of these elements can wreak havoc on fossils if not properly prepared for. After all the pros and cons of keeping the collection where it was versus moving the collection to an offsite storage facility were weighed and debated, the decision was made to keep the collection in place and protect the collection from any foreseen hazards to the best of our ability.

In this case water was our main concern. A minor concern was vibration from nearby heavy machinery. To protect the fossils from vibration, foam was placed in drawers and between fossils, cradling each fossil (figs. 1 & 2). To protect it from dripping water, the collection was completely covered in plastic sheeting (fig. 3 & 4). Fossils were also removed from the first 12 inches above the floor in case the storage room should flood. The storage room was heavily monitored for any sign of problems over the next few months. Meanwhile a new storage room was being completed and filled with new, state of the art cabinets and storage compactors to house the important collection (fig. 5).

Finally moving day arrived. Due to all the things needing to be done our window to move the collection was small. A team of paleontologists and skilled volunteers moved thousands of fossils over the course of a few days, reorganizing the collection as we moved it.

The project has been completed and the collection receives routine and ongoing maintenance and organization.

Fig. 1 – Paleontologist Amanda Person (left) and paleo intern Samantha Pounds (right) placing foam padding between fossils.

Fig. 2 – Paleontologists Becky Barnes (left) and Amanda Person (right) placing foam padding between fossils.

Fig. 3 – Paleontologist Becky Barnes securing plastic sheeting on top of metal cases containing the ND State Fossil Collection.

Fig. 4 (left) – Metal cabinets containing ND State Fossil Collection covered in plastic to protect from possible water damage.
Fig. 5 (right) – The new cabinets holding the important ND State Fossil Collection.

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.