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!

Reorganizing Storage East: The Saga Continues

Back in May 2019, I blogged about my cataloging and organization project at the State Historical Society of North Dakota’s off-site storage facility, Storage East. Much has happened since then, so I want to take you on a tour of what the collections crew has been up to!

In early 2020, we purchased new shelving for the rooms to maximize storage space. Some already had shelves installed, but these were warped and did not meet our needs as far as adaptability. Those shelves were taken down to be replaced with pallet shelving. We also made use of existing plywood, which we cut to the size of the units to create shelves.

The collections team, with the help of muscles from our other State Historical Society coworkers, has been going through Storage East room by room to update the shelving. The process goes a bit like this handy-dandy numbered list:

1. Clear out individual rooms to install shelving. This involves tracking where the artifacts are moved, so we can still find them in their temporary locations.

2. Install shelving. Sometimes our initial plans get changed during the implementation process. Occasionally, whole shelves are eliminated to allow for the retrieval of objects, with enough space between the aisles for people and objects to move safely.

3. Planning the spaces. This is the stage where we get an idea of what types of objects will go into the newly cleared space. For example, because the collection has many trunks, we decided to consolidate them into one room. Then we adjusted the shelving to make sure it would fit all the trunks and other intended objects, and that the space was used as efficiently as possible.

4. Place Ethafoam. Once the shelves are in position, we place a sheet of Ethafoam where the objects will be stored; this ensures there is an acid-free barrier between the objects and the shelf’s wood.

A storage room is shown with empty shelving units on both sides

A (mostly) empty room in Storage East, with shelves under construction.

5. Moving in. Now it’s time to move objects onto their new shelving. Paying attention to any condition issues, we inventory each object’s new room and shelf number, so we know exactly where to find it when needed for an exhibition or to show a visitor or researcher. No lost things allowed!

A woman is kneeling on the top shelf of a shelving unit while two other women hand her a large trunk

Getting trunks into position with a little overhead help.

6. Celebrate the improved storage organization. The rooms we reorganized have huge improvements in storage capacity. For example, one room went from housing 62 objects to 148. That’s a 138% increase in objects housed for just one room!

The left image shows a room filled with desks and other wooden objects. The right image shows the room cleaned out and organized with shelves and trunks and other items neatly placed on the shelves

Left: Before reorganization.
Right: After we worked our magic.

Not only are we storing more objects in these rooms, but the space is now better organized and the objects are more accessible, making their retrieval both safer and easier (for the objects and collections staff). Wins all around!

Surveying the Museum Collecting Survey

Last year, the museum collections committee analyzed the current representation within the state collection and noticed there were particular gaps of objects from childhood and teenage years, most significantly those items from the 1960s to the present. The State Historical Society of North Dakota is also looking ahead and considering how much collections storage space we will need as we continue to collect objects into the future.

To help us get an idea of what the people of North Dakota would most like to be collected and preserved from their childhood and beyond, the staff began conducting an online survey in February to gather input from lifetime, current, and past North Dakotans, as well as visitors to the state, about what the State Museum should collect.

We have received many great responses since the survey launched, and here is a little about what we have learned so far. I hope you like stats and nostalgia as much as I do, because here we go!

Here are the results as of Aug. 10:

  • 134 unique responses.
  • Representation from 37 North Dakota counties, with the most responses from Burleigh (34) followed by Morton (8).
  • The highest number of responses from participants born in the decades 1950-1959 (37) and 1960-1969 (32).
  • 230 suggestions for toys.
  • 239 suggestions for clothing.
  • 234 suggestions for activities.
  • 105 suggestions for “other,” i.e., stuff that didn’t quite fit anywhere else.

By object category, here are the top responses, as well as an assortment of other interesting answers.

Toys

Top responses: Barbie, GI Joe, Cabbage Patch dolls, Hot Wheels, LEGO toys, Lincoln Logs, toy vehicles

Random responses: Chatty Cathy dolls, color-changing toys, homemade toys, lawn darts, water baby dolls, Yu-Gi-Oh cards

orange barbie car with vintage barbie sitting in drivers seat

Clothing

Top responses: Bell-bottoms, bib overalls, Hash jeans, jeans, jelly shoes, Air Jordans, scrunchies

Random responses: Toe socks, stirrup leggings, skinny jeans, paisley, hand-me-downs, Uggs

Activities

Top responses: Bikes, roller skating, baseball, books, board games, video games/game consoles (Super Mario Bros., Space Invaders), phonographs

Random responses: Cartoons on Saturday mornings, 8-tracks, chalk drawing, drive-in movies, local music bands

Duran Duran puzzle

Other

Top responses: CD & cassette Walkman, inflatable furniture, boombox, clamshell VHS tapes, ordering Scholastic books from a catalog, teen magazines (Tiger Beat, J-14, Bop)

Random responses: The ”Macarena,” TV dinners, duck-and-cover training pamphlets, food and drink packaging, hairstyles (the Rachel, mullet, bouffant, etc.)

As someone who falls into the 1990-1999 age range, it has been wonderful seeing the creative, thoughtful suggestions both from my peers and people born in the decades before and after me. Not only are the responses helpful for us at the museum as we look to the future of the collection, they are also a great way to learn about what objects, activities, styles, and clothing have been important to children in North Dakota throughout the decades.

Is there something from your childhood that you think we should collect? Does it look like your county or age group needs more representation? Head to the collections survey here and make your voice heard!

If you would like to donate to the State Historical Society museum collection, be it a My Little Pony, bellbottoms, a boombox or anything in between, you can complete our Potential Donation Questionnaire here.

Keeping Track of Stuff

Documentation and housing are integral to museum collections work, and they make up a large part of my project as an intern at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Last year during a storm, the roof was damaged at one of the State Museum’s offsite collections storage facilities, known as Storage East. During the recovery activities, the collections team noted that most of the objects in the facility had poor documentation, lacked current photographs, and were in need of cleaning and rehousing. That’s where I come in.

My job is to update the information we have about objects housed at Storage East. Most of the objects stored there are furniture: bookcases, desks, chairs, trunks, and the like. Big stuff. Stuff that’s mostly made of wood, glass, and metal, and used to furnish exhibits and tell stories. But the records we have for them are outdated or incomplete. For example, we have a large collection of trunks, and for a few of them their documentation has the word “trunk” with no further description. This sparse documentation doesn’t do us much good if we’re trying to find a specific trunk and have no idea what it looks like. My task is to write a more thorough description of the objects’ materials, color, dimensions, and style.

person wearing gloves measures the width of a shopping cart

Measuring the dimensions of a shopping cart at Storage East.

I also need to conduct a thorough analysis of each object’s condition. Does it have any cracks? Any peeling varnish? Is the color faded? Or maybe the object is in great condition, almost as flawless as the day it was made. It’s my job to update this information, so we can track any future changes to the object, whether through another disaster or general deterioration.

laptop on a rolling stand sits amongs large artifacts

Creating a movable workstation while updating documentation.

When the object has been described, photographed, and labeled, it is easier to track as it moves from storage to exhibit, or even from storage room to storage room. For example, while working my way through one of the rooms, I found a lampshade. The shade had no object number, and there were no shadeless lamps in that room. I made a note of it, and a few rooms later, I found a lamp without a shade. By checking the photo in the lamp’s file, I was able to verify that the shade belonged to it, and reunite them. Without the previous documentation of the lamp, the objects would have stayed separate, making it difficult to use the lamp for exhibits or research.

room with striped walpaper and many artifacts

The separated lampshade is on the blue box, marked with orange flagging tape as a disassociated object.

gray lamp with silver lamp shade and light green lamp with tan lamp shade

Left: Original documentation photo of lamp. Right: Photo of the reunited lamp.

When I’m not describing the collections, I’m finding new ways to house them. Most of the objects have been stored on wood pallets, which is a good start. Museum objects should not sit directly on the floor, in case of flooding and to avoid any damage. Yet objects need additional protection from roof leaks and potential falling debris. Part of my project has been to research shelving options for the storage facility. I am using floor plans to measure how many shelving units we can fit into each room, using as much of our space as possible.

The progress on this project has been slow but significant. I’m always delighted when I locate a missing object or reunite pieces, and it’s a great feeling to do everything I can to make sure they will not be lost again. There’s a lot to do, but the project will help future collections staff, whether it’s through documentation, preparing for shelving, or dusting the objects. It all helps preserve these objects for the future.

Women’s Work: Expanding the Scope of an Exhibit

While most of my internship at the State Historical Society was spent working with collections in the deep recesses of the museum, one of my projects was to create an exhibit commemorating the upcoming 100th anniversary of woman suffrage (right to vote). This meant my work was actually going to be seen by the public, as I was writing, designing, and compiling objects specifically for public viewing. It was an exciting change! While planning for this exhibit, I decided to expand upon the topic and include not only objects related to the early suffrage movement, but also highlight North Dakota women’s leadership and activism through the 20th century, showing how the ripples from the woman suffrage movement continue today.

To help illustrate the scope of these women’s work, I chose objects from international and national women’s rights events and the push for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s and ’80s.

silver metal cuff bracelet with the letters E R A cut out

The museum collection holds many artifacts related to women’s rights activism, most of them being buttons, ribbons, and clothing. But there was one unusual item: this bracelet from the 1970s. It has a cutout reading ERA, referring to the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing equal rights regardless of sex. This bracelet is the only piece of women’s activism jewelry in the collection, directly drawing attention to the ERA and the ongoing fight to ratify it.

White and blue striped smock shirt with red embroidery on hem

This smock is from International Women’s Year (1975). The garment is from the donor’s days as an activist working to gain ratification of the ERA. In choosing it for the exhibit, I hoped to put women’s activism in a global context, as International Women's Year was celebrated by the United Nations. So not only is the smock fashionable, it’s making a political statement and is a marker for a year in which women’s rights were recognized on a global scale.

orange burlap tote bag reading “A woman’s place is in the House . . . and in the Senate.”

Finally, one of my favorite artifacts in the exhibit is this tote bag reading “A woman’s place is in the House . . . and in the Senate.” This object’s existence is a direct result of women becoming engaged in politics. It was purchased by the donor in 1981 during the 53rd Girls Nation held at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. I loved researching Girls Nation, an ongoing program introducing girls to the workings of government. This tote helps show the scope of organizations encouraging women to become leaders in their communities, while also proudly bearing a slogan I’d like to cross-stitch onto a pillow.

Elise Dukart, guest blogger standing in front of exhibit case

By expanding the scope of the exhibit using these objects, I hoped to draw a direct line from women gaining suffrage to activism continuing through the 20th century and today. Women’s direct participation in politics and activism helped pass the 1917 North Dakota Suffrage Bill, and continued activism by women in the decades following have strengthened support for advances in equality like the ERA. I love how the exhibit turned out, and it made me hopeful that the State Historical Society museum collection will continue to add artifacts symbolizing North Dakota’s history of women’s activism.