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. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Recent Donations: A Look Back on the Final Acquisitions of 2021

Welcome to 2022! It’s a time for new beginnings, new resolutions, and … new exhibits! That’s right, the collections and exhibit crew at the State Historical Society of North Dakota recently installed a new exhibit at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck.

The exhibit title is Recent Donations. Five curators chose a selection of items that were donated to the museum collections within the last two years, and they are now on exhibit through November 2022. In this spirit, I’d like to share with you a few more items that we acquired at the tail end of 2021.

One of the last donations received by the museum collection in 2021 was an assortment of Tupperware. Tupperware is a great example of a modern item that is a huge part of North Dakota culture but doesn’t always make it into museums. The donor sold Tupperware starting in the early 1990s, but her collection dates back even earlier. (I don’t know about you, but I can all but see the potluck noodle salad in the green bowls in the image below.)

An array of tupperware products, including a set of salt and pepper shakers, bowls, a toy, and more.

Nothing says North Dakota potluck like a fetching assortment of Tupperware. SHSND PAR-2021124

Meanwhile, this Melissa & Doug brand toy hammer has served a dual historical purpose that prompted its acceptance into the collection. It’s one of the most contemporary toys that we have acquired. But in an ironic twist, it also served as a gavel during parliamentary proceedings by state Rep. Corey Mock at an online legislative meeting in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mock used this hammer to open a Legislative Information Technology Committee meeting, held remotely on June 4, 2020.

A wooden gavel with a red handle

This children’s toy pulled double duty at North Dakota Legislative Assembly committee meetings in 2020 and 2021. SHSND 2021.65

Committee chairmen or chairwomen are usually provided a gavel when using the committee meeting rooms at the state Capitol in Bismarck, but since Mock was attending this particular hybrid meeting from home, he drafted this toy hammer belonging to his then-3-year-old son into service. When he offered this item to the museum collection, Mock reflected, “With a few raps on my standing desk, this Melissa & Doug play hammer was transformed into a parliamentary magic wand.” The hammer was subsequently used as a meeting gavel for several legislative meetings over the course of 2020 and 2021 before being donated to the State Historical Society.

Another contemporary artifact donated in late 2021 was this dress. The donor made it for her 8-year-old daughter in 2016-2017. Blue fabric was added to the skirt as the girl grew taller, allowing it to remain a favorite dress for a few years. This frock is a great example of a recent item whose story can be told not only by the person donating it but also by the physical changes made to the object itself.

A red dress with a section of purple across the bust and blue across the bottom with purple flowers throughout hangs from a metal hanger

The skirt of this handmade dress was lengthened with blue fabric to accommodate a growing girl. SHSND 2021.60

We appreciate our North Dakota citizens who offer us interesting family or personal items to add to the state’s museum collection. Items that are accepted by our staff into the collection help tell the state’s ongoing story for future generations.

Currently the State Museum is looking for additional contemporary items to add to the museum collection. Check out our list of desired items and fill out a questionnaire to have your donation considered by the Museum Collections Committee.

We are so excited to see what is in store for the collection in 2022!

The Heritage Art Tunnel: Engaging Audiences With Public Art

Everyone can benefit from being conscious of ways to attract and engage audiences. It doesn’t matter who you are. In every aspect of your life, whether it be family, social, spiritual, work, play, or recreation, it is valuable to hold your audience in high regard. By recognizing your audience or audiences while striving to attract and engage them you will increase the impact of the services you provide. One approach to enticing a new audience is to reach them when they least expect it. Public art can have such an effect.

Two recently unveiled wall murals in the Heritage Art Tunnel that passes under State Street in Bismarck are good examples of public art in action. The tunnel connects Myron Atkinson Park located on the east side of State Street with the North Dakota State Capitol Complex, including the ND Heritage Center & State Museum.

A walking tunnel under a road is shown with a sidewalk leading up to it

This unassuming tunnel at the edge of the state Capitol complex has been transformed into an outdoor art gallery. Photo by Melissa Gordon

A walking tunnel under road can be seen from two different views showing the murals on each wall. The murals have a green background with many North Dakota-related elements.

Artist’s rendition of the Heritage Art Tunnel murals. Photo by Melissa Gordon

The brainchild of the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber of Commerce’s leadership program, the Heritage Art Tunnel took several years to complete. Because the tunnel not only connects Bismarck municipal property with the state Capitol grounds and goes under a city street also designated as a U.S. highway, multiple agencies needed to grant permissions before the public art project could move forward. Design concept development, funding, the involvement of a capable artist, and community support from organizations like Dakota West Arts Council, the North Dakota Council on the Arts, and the State Historical Society were all part of nurturing this project, finished in October 2021, to fruition.

A middle-aged woman with long, dark hair and wire framed glasses smiles for the camera

Tunnel artist Melissa Gordon. Courtesy mel-ink studio

Initially, a “timeline” was the only guidance given to Melissa Gordon, a Bismarck public artist, who both embraced the project and elevated it to the next level. Melissa merged her concept of “connections” with a graphic representation of “circuits” in a circuit board and developed a storyboard that had the potential to tell the history of North Dakota. As this merger took shape it became apparent the North Dakota Studies curriculum developed for fourth grade public school students could offer guidance on content, color palette, and other connections that could turn these murals into a visual learning venue. As the concepts coalesced and became more refined, exhibits in the State Museum helped inform Melissa’s final designs, as you can see in the images below.

On the let is a taxidermied bison, and on the right is a painted image that was inspired from the image on the left.

Artifacts from the State Museum such as this bison, left, served as inspiration for the art tunnel’s murals. SHSND 4179.2

I encourage you to experience the art for yourself. The Heritage Art Tunnel’s south side mural is organized around the concepts of geography and agriculture; while the north side illustrates energy. Spend a little time in the tunnel. Take guidance from the connections you see to make connections to your own heritage and history using ND Studies and the exhibits in the State Museum.

A connection I made recently was to a blog post from C3 Teachers, a collaborative effort of teachers helping students learn the academic content needed to become ready for the three Cs—college, career, and civic life. In that blog is a street art-related Inquiry Design Model (IDM), which includes concise “questions, tasks, and sources that define a curricular inquiry.” This IDM asks the question: “Does public art make communities better?”

An approach using IDMs is also being implemented in ND Studies. This will allow teachers to experiment with their teaching practices while simultaneously supporting students as they question, analyze, and collaborate in authentic social studies experiences. This distinctive approach to creating instructional materials gives teachers flexibility to develop relevant lessons that provide creative questions, tasks, and sources for North Dakota students as they prepare for their futures. All this is to say that public art projects like the Heritage Art Tunnel can spark unique and transformative learning experiences. Each of us should look at our potential audiences and the connections we make both with them and everything around us, striving in creative ways to take informed action toward a better future for all.