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.

Crafting Exhibit Text: Compelling, Vivid, and Short

What makes compelling exhibit text? I just employed one strategy: opening with a question. Well-crafted exhibits tell stories — both visually through artifacts and photos, and with words by using vivid, concise language to convey colorful, informative histories to our audience.

Ideally, you want the viewer to pause long enough to look, read, reflect, and feel a connection with your topic. Does that anecdote remind them of something a family member told them, or that artifact look just like one in their grandparents’ house? Or, does the exhibit allow the audience to enter a world far removed from their own — either by going back in time, or by exploring a different culture — and yet find a connection through empathizing with a story character, or just from seeing the look in a photographed person’s eyes?

Group of 4 people dressed in 1920s clothing

One of my favorite photos of State Historical Society staff, Sept. 5, 1926. Can you relate to the people in the photo? What stories does this image tell? SHSND SA 00200-6x8-00287

When I travel, I like to stop in museums for exhibit text ideas. In this label from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, look at the last paragraph. What is more compelling, saying, “Most of the gold was stolen by thieves,” or, as they do, “Most of the gold was hacked away by plunderers who desecrated the burial”?

museum panel with photo and text

In 2018 I viewed the fantastic Stampede exhibit at the Denver Art Museum depicting a broad range of animals in art. In this label titled “Menagerie,” the text is concise, engaging, and clear — and also translated into Spanish for additional audience inclusion.

bilingual museum panel

Currently, our State Museum’s Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples features select quotes and audio of several Indigenous languages. In a similar vein, I loved this painting title at Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, but can’t imagine routinely proofreading text in four languages (Catalan, Spanish, English, and French).

Miro Painting

Miro painting museum panel

This fall I was privileged to draft the exhibit text for our current Prairie Post Office exhibit in the James E. Sperry Gallery. This exhibit is unique in that it is based on a book by the same name, written by K. Amy Phillips and Steven R. Bolduc, published by NDSU Press. The exhibit follows the basic structure of the book and incorporates contemporary photography by Wayne Gudmundson, but also adds artifacts and archival photos and whittles the book text way, way down into digestible exhibit labels. Each chapter received about 150 words, not much longer than this paragraph. I tried to take the major themes of the book and add questions, examples, and surprising facts and ideas I learned thanks to the authors’ research.

Post Office museum graphics panel

Wall of museum info panels

Exhibit panels from The Prairie Post Office, on view through 2021.

Finalizing the exhibit text was a team effort: members of our editorial and design team, exhibits team, collections staff, and the book authors all reviewed the text and offered feedback. Just like sustaining life in rural communities — the major theme of this exhibit — creating an exhibit takes a village.

I invite you to come view The Prairie Post Office, spend time (briefly) reading, and let us know what you think.

From First Draft to Polished Publication: The Life Cycle of "North Dakota History" Articles

Government-funded marionette theater. An iconic photograph of Sitting Bull. Fargo’s bootlegging underworld. The first World War I monument in the nation.

What do these have in common? They are all are captured in riveting detail in North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains, published for more than a century by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. “What?” you think to yourself. “The State Historical Society has a legit academic journal?” Yes indeed, covering a wealth of northern plains history since 1906. I wrote about surveying our journal audience last year, but to better explain what distinguishes the journal from a general interest magazine, I want to walk you through the publication process — from selecting manuscripts and photos to the polished, printed glossy that arrives in your mailbox (or can, if you sign up!).

three differend North Dakota History journal covers

1. Manuscript selection
As an academic journal, we have an open call for manuscript submissions, and our staff selects promising ones for anonymous peer review. This means the journal editor, Pam Berreth Smokey, finds subject-area experts to review the text and offer feedback on whether the article meets our guidelines — including source citations — and on potential improvements. The reviewers don’t know the author’s name, and the author never learns the reviewers’ names. Reviewers could be from North Dakota or any state (it’s a secret!). We look at their areas of expertise to select the best match for the topic.

2. Revision process
If the article is accepted by reviewers, the author revises according to reviewer feedback, as well as feedback from Pam, me (the associate editor), and other knowledgeable staff. We edit all manuscripts using the Chicago Manual of Style (including source citations) and maintain a style guide for local North Dakota terms as well.

Men standing outside building. Two men hold a sign together that says To Hell With The Kaiser

Burleigh County men prior to entrainment during World War I, March 29, 1918. Look at their faces, their style, their ages. Do you think the Kaiser got the message? SHSND SA E0071-00001

3. Photo selection
We ask the author for image suggestions to accompany the article, since photos, illustrations, and newspaper scans add visual interest and can tell a story all their own. Our photo archivist, Sharon Silengo, also digs through the State Archives to find related images in our collection. When we need to look further afield, I request photo files and reprint permission from other archives and libraries across the country. We ask authors to draft image captions, often supplemented by the stellar research Sharon unearths.

Page from journal with many edits written on it in pen and marker

4. Layout and proofing
The journal’s text and images are sent to a design contractor, who uses a template created by our internal new media specialists. In addition to the main feature articles, we compile book reviews (also written by academics) and short features written by State Historical Society staff that highlight objects from our collections. The design and proofing phase often goes through many (many, many) rounds, including author review and input from our division director and State Historical Society director.

5. Printing, reading, and acclaim
When the proof receives unanimous approval, Pam sends it to the printer! She and I check press proofs one more time before nervously signing off and collapsing into our piles of revisions and notes. We try our best to eliminate any errors to maintain a standard as close to perfect as humanly possible. Not to mention being attractive and highly readable — as testified to by winning the Mountain Plains Museums Association design award two years in a row.

Three women standing in front of copper wall. The middle woman is holding an award.

Photo archivist Sharon Silengo, North Dakota History editor Pam Berreth Smokey, and Ann with the 2017 MPMA Publication Design Award.

Luckily for you, the most recent issue of the journal is available now, and you can read featured articles online. If you are a researcher and writer of North Dakota history, consider submitting your original work. And for everyone who loves to learn about this region and its complex history — peruse our archives! We are looking forward to the next 100+ years.

5 Reasons Readers Love "North Dakota History"

As an editor, I get to geek out over dictionaries, style guides, and book catalogs (such as this one from the University of Nebraska Press). I also try to stay current with a variety of academic journals, and am privileged to work with editor Pam Berreth Smokey on one of the best in our region: North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains, published semiannually by the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Perhaps you are one of our devoted readers, but for the uninitiated (and newcomers to the northern plains, such as myself), I am excited to tell you about this stellar resource. The State Historical Society loves gathering audience feedback, and we recently conducted a North Dakota History reader survey. Ensuring reader satisfaction is a unique challenge in that we want to present new, credible scholarship in an accessible and visually appealing way.

Well, we were thrilled with the results! Here are five top reasons readers love our journal.

Journal covers

Recent covers of North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains

1. Well-researched articles.
Did you know the State Historical Society of North Dakota has published an academic journal since 1906? While the journal (called North Dakota Historical Quarterly from 1926 to 1945) maintains high academic standards for the historians, professors, and others who contribute well-researched articles, we also attract a broad general readership of folks interested in the history of our region. If we can help the reader think more deeply about an article topic through a new lens or learn a fascinating new tidbit about history, we’re fulfilling our purpose.

2. Enlightening topics.
In our reader survey, over half of respondents* rated the journal “outstanding,” and 79 percent read “most pages” or “cover to cover.” As a bookworm (and the journal’s book review editor), I am excited folks still make time to read an entire magazine! Some of the most interesting feedback relates to article topics: immigrant ethnic history is our most popular subject area, with Native American history and architecture/historic preservation coming in close behind.

Chart showing favorite topics

From North Dakota History reader survey, January 2018

3. Local history is personal.
Our most popular article of 2016–17 was “1997 Grand Forks Flood” by University of North Dakota professor Kimberly Porter, which recounted a personal experience of the natural disaster many of our readers lived through. Similarly, our Winter 2017 issue featured McIntosh County German-Russians and three rural North Dakota cemeteries, meaning many of our readers were tied (as actual relatives, or culturally) to the people and communities discussed.

Photo of 1997 Grand Forks flood

Kimberly Porter’s article on the 1997 Grand Forks flood was the most popular of the past year. North Dakota History, Vol. 82.1 (Summer 2017), pp. 18–19

4. Great design.
Images remain vital to our storytelling, and we are proud the journal has won the Mountain-Plains Museums Association Publication Design Award for two years in a row (2016–17). The most recent winner included this article on frontier photographer Orlando S. Goff, who captured an iconic photo of Sitting Bull in 1881.

5. One-of-a-kind stories.
On the northern plains, truth sometimes really is stranger than fiction. We continue to add original content for free online, including this recently posted 1957 article, “Reminiscences of a Pioneer Mother.” A personal favorite, Kate Roberts Pelissier’s astounding oral history is reminiscent of Little Women and the Little House books.

Margaret Barr Roberts

Margaret Barr Roberts, described in “Reminiscences of a Pioneer Mother” by Kate Roberts Pelissier, raised five daughters alone on a ranch near Medora after her husband disappeared. SHSND A4454

Have I piqued your interest enough? You can catch up with the contents of recent issues online, read them in our State Archives, purchase copies through our Museum Store, or subscribe. Our next issue, going to press in June, will highlight World War I memorials across the state and explore the 1856 G. K. Warren maps, which were pivotal in charting the Missouri River and its environs.

Keep reading! And don’t hesitate to let us know what you think.


* We conducted the survey electronically through an email to available subscribers. The link was also published in the print journal. Fifteen percent (148 people) of the email list responded.

A People’s History of the Plains: Rad Women and Girls

When I discovered Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States two decades ago, it rocked my world. The stories of Indigenous peoples, women, slaves, and the working class were a revelation beyond the whitewashed textbook history taught in my public high school.

Today’s historians have gotten better about telling stories of the marginalized, though we still have a long way to go to disrupt the dominant narrative written by “the winners.” This is why I’m excited to direct you toward our North Dakota Studies curriculum, specifically to People Living on the Land, which contains primary sources and commentary on the lives of the everyday North Dakotans who shaped our history.

In honor of Women’s History Month — and March Madness, which we’ll get to in a bit — check out five links on North Dakota’s remarkable, but too often overlooked, women and girls.

Women sitting in a field braiding cork

Women braid corn for drying. SHSND 0086-0277

1. Corn farmers
Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara women traditionally handled agricultural production for their tribes. Women grew sunflowers, beans, and squash, in addition to multiple varieties of corn, providing a reliable source of nutrition and wealth.

Two women draw water from a well

Drawing water from a well, used for washing, cooking, cleaning, and bathing, was one of the heaviest chores a woman had to complete. SHSND 2009-P-012-006

2. Hired girls
Among settler families, teenage girls and young women often found work as “hired girls,” helping farm families with the demanding domestic tasks of childrearing and farmhouse life.

A group of women stand in front of a tent that reads FOVES FOR WOMEN LEAGUE (NOVEMBER 3RD 1914)

While campaigning for the woman suffrage law, the Votes for Women League hosted a tent at the 1914 Bottineau County Fair. SHSND 10204

3. Suffragists
As we prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of U.S. woman suffrage in 2020, it’s enlightening to look back on the women dressed in white a century ago. Even before passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, white women in Dakota Territory could vote in local school elections starting in 1883. Native American women fully gained the right to vote, along with U.S. citizenship, in 1924.

A woman stands in front of an old automobile patching the inner tube of a tire

Veronica Brown of Cass County patches the inner tube of a tire circa 1918. SHSND 0032-CS-06-14

4. Mechanics
Women began driving as soon as cars appeared in North Dakota, and even some girls learned to drive, such as 12-year-old Esther Nichol who made deliveries for her father in Souris. During World War I it is likely more women began to work as mechanics since so many men served overseas.

Five women play basketball while a woman stands in the background coaching or reffing

Athletes compete at Bismarck Indian School, an all-girls boarding school. SHSND 11113-73

5. Basketball stars
Enter hoops madness! Girls’ basketball became a competitive sport in the first half of the 20th-century in North Dakota, when girls began playing half-court games in bulky woolen uniforms. Uniforms and skills improved up until girls’ basketball was suspended in 1960. The game was reinstated for North Dakota girls in 1973.