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.

5 Inspirational Women from North Dakota’s Past

There’s an old cliché that “history is written by the winners,” and it’s an uncomfortable fact that the winners — culturally, socially, and economically — have mostly been men. The result is a historical narrative biased toward men’s deeds with an often deafening silence surrounding women’s accomplishments. Women, however, have always been a part of making history. In recent years women’s stories have come to light and are adding to, if not rewriting, part of our shared history. Here are just a few remarkable women from North Dakota’s past.

Portrait of Dr. Fannie Dunn Quain

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Dr. Fannie Dunn Quain
Dr. Fannie Dunn Quain (1874–1950) was North Dakota’s first licensed female physician. As a young woman, she worked multiple jobs to save money to go to medical school. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1898 with a doctor of medicine degree. After moving to Bismarck, she became a prominent figure in the area and was elected Burleigh County’s superintendent of schools. She had an active private medical practice for many years, but later turned her efforts to organizing the North Dakota Tuberculosis Association.


Side portrait of Linda Slaughter

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Linda Slaughter
Linda Warfel Slaughter (1843–1911) accompanied her husband, a military surgeon, to Fort Rice in 1870 (…). After moving to Fort Hancock, near Bismarck, she effectively filled the role of postmaster, although technically her husband held the position. She was a prolific newspaper columnist, Bismarck’s first teacher, Burleigh County’s first superintendent of schools, a leading figure in the woman suffrage movement and an organizer of the Ladies Historical Society, which later became today’s State Historical Society of North Dakota.


Portrait of Minnie Craig wearing glasses and a necklace

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Minnie Craig
In 1923 Minnie Davenport Craig (1883–1966) was elected to the North Dakota House of Representatives. Ten years later she became the first woman speaker of a state House of Representatives in the nation. She ultimately served six terms in the North Dakota legislature and was a Republican National Committeewoman for North Dakota from 1928–1932.


Florence Klingensmith standing in front of an airplane with the number 57 on it

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Florence “Tree Tops” Klingensmith
Florence Anderson Klingensmith (1904–1933) had an insatiable appetite for speed. Inspired by Charles Lindbergh, Klingensmith learned to fly, earning the nickname “Tree Tops” when she became North Dakota’s first female licensed pilot. She persuaded local Fargo businessmen to donate money for a plane in exchange for free advertising space on it. She bought a Monocoupe named Miss Fargo in 1929. Now licensed and with her own plane, she set out to break flying records. In 1931, over four hours, she completed 1,078 loop-de-loops, an average of four loops per minute. She did exhibition flying, and won international air races against men and women. In 1933 she tragically lost her life during a race in Chicago when a faulty wing caused her plane to crash.


Scattered Corn standing outside holding a hoe over her shoulder

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Scattered Corn
Scattered Corn (1858–1940) was a respected Mandan seed keeper and daughter of the last corn priest, Moves Slowly. With no successors, his medicine bundle came to Scattered Corn, who did her best to continue the traditions and maintain the accumulated wisdom of generations. Over hundreds of years, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara gardeners had developed vegetable varieties appropriate for northern climates. Scattered Corn shared her knowledge about native agriculture and Mandan traditions. Seedman Oscar Will began selling corn seeds originally sourced through Scattered Corn in his seed catalog. Ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore recorded Scattered Corn singing ancient prayer songs. Because of Scattered Corn’s generosity, many aspects of Mandan agricultural traditions have been preserved for future generations.

A Middle-Aged Museum Professional Learns New Tricks: Building Audience Engagement at Museums

In September I had the opportunity to attend the Mountain Plains Museum Association (MPMA) annual conference in Billings, Montana. MPMA is one of six regional museum associations in the United States that works in conjunction with the national American Association of Museums to advise on regional museum issues. The annual conference provides training, networking, and information sharing for museum professionals at a relatively low cost.

Montana's landscape with mountains and a body of water

Beautiful Montana

Due to budgets and schedules it’s not always feasible to attend every year. Billings, however, is practically next door to Bismarck. We’d just finished up a major exhibit project (The Horse in North Dakota, which if you haven’t been to visit yet — well, shame on you, because it’s amazing), so a few of us piled into a car and headed west.

I was most excited about the audience engagement workshops. A company out of New York called Museum Hack led both half-day workshops. Museum Hack got its start by giving unconventional tours of New York City museums based on the premise that (a) museums are awesome, but (b) many people don’t know that. This is something most museum professionals struggle with — how to effectively relay the incredible stories we know about the objects to visitors.

The morning session focused on storytelling — specifically on how to tell a good story. We all probably know a good story when we hear it, but we needed to break it down to identify its elements. To start, we role-played how both an inebriated person and a college professor might describe a museum visit. (As an aside, I think some of my museum colleagues really missed their theatrical calling.) After the short performances we tossed out adjectives to describe the museum-goers. The inebriated person was passionate, approachable, relatable, but also vague on details and not very knowledgeable. Our professor was authoritative, descriptive, trustworthy, but also quite boring and even snobbish. A good story combines the best parts of the inebriated and the expert storytelling — passionate but knowledgeable; approachable yet authoritative.

Our session leader, Zak, then outlined the five elements of a Museum Hack — whether that’s a program, a tour, or even an exhibit.

  1. Engagement or “the hook”: Get your audience to do something, and get them involved, because you can’t assume they care about the information you want to share.
  2. What’s the story? Quickly tell the story, best facts first, in no more than 30 seconds. You’ll have time for detail later.
  3. Mind=Blown: Why is this thing/topic amazing?
  4. Connection: Why do YOU respond to this topic or content? Does it connect to the bigger picture outside of the museum?
  5. Drop the mic: Maybe it’s a joke or a great last line. Button it all up, leaving your audience asking questions and wanting to continue the conversation.

I left the session inspired, making plans of how I was going to apply my newly learned hack at the State Museum and outlying state historic sites; knowing I now had the power to let the world know that NERDS ARE COOL. Ok, maybe not that much power, but I was pumped.

Producing "The Horse in North Dakota" Exhibit: Part 2

It’s been four months since I last blogged about The Horse in North Dakota exhibit and behind-the-scenes work is “galloping” along. One of the most important things we’ve learned is that the chance to use horse- related puns isn’t one you can say “neigh” to!

Telling the Story in Three Dimensions

In my last blog I compared an exhibit to telling a story. The biggest difference between a story you’d read in a book and the story you follow in an exhibit is one of dimension. In a book you turn pages to progress through the narrative. In an exhibit a visitor literally moves through the story as they walk from one part of an exhibit to the next.

Rather than dividing the story into chapters, I divide an exhibit gallery into topic areas. I start with a “bubble” plan to figure out how much floor space each topic needs and how they connect to each other. In the beginning it looks like this:

Plan showing layout of sections for the exhibit

To continue the reading metaphor, most people read books starting with Chapter One and continue sequentially to the end. Not having chapters, an exhibit must provide physical guides to show visitors how to move through the story. So after the bubble plan, the next step is to put in walls or dividers.

Floor plan for exhibit showing where dividers will be

The walls suggest a path for visitors to follow and create the suggestion of small rooms that contain topics – almost like a chapter contains a discrete part of a story.

At the same time we are working on the layout we are also developing content – all the parts of the exhibit that convey information. Content can be written text, photographs, videos, audio, hands-on interactives, and the objects, of course. In exhibit design, we have the unique challenge of figuring out how to put different types of content together so they succinctly and clearly convey the information.

For example, in the military section we’ll discuss the historic US Cavalry. Mounted cavalry had an advantage in war because they could move quickly over large distances. However, there still needed to be a means of communication. Before radios and cell phones there was the bugle.

This panel explains the bugle’s importance, gives visitors a chance to hear bugle calls, and shows what a mid-19th century bugler looked like.

Panel for the section Live by the Bugle

Notice the warm yellow and reddish colors at the top and bottom of the panel. If you refer back to the bubble plan, all of the panels in the “Horses at Work” bubble will use these colors. Other areas, such as “Evolution of the Horse” will have a different color scheme. In addition to the walls, color and graphic design indicate to visitors that they are encountering a new topic as they move through the exhibit.

I hope this brief behind-the-scenes look at exhibit development will add an extra layer of enjoyment when you come to experience The Horse in North Dakota. The exhibit opens on August 25, 2018.

Producing "The Horse" Exhibit: Part 1

Since the Governors Gallery in the ND Heritage Center & State Museum opened in November 2014, we’ve hosted a variety of traveling exhibits from nationally-recognized institutions such as the Smithsonian, NASA, and the Field Museum. It’s been an amazing opportunity to bring world-class exhibits to North Dakota to share with visitors. Now it’s our turn to showcase uniquely North Dakota objects and stories in an exhibit produced by the State Historical Society of North Dakota – The Horse.

Planning began over a year ago, and although we’ve got lots still to do, I thought I’d share some of the work we’ve done so far.


I like to think of an exhibit as a story that we tell to visitors. The objects and photos, the text visitors read, and the design all have to work together to communicate the narrative. An important component is what we call the graphic style. This includes assigning colors, choosing fonts, and selecting materials. Some choices are for practical reasons – is the font easily legible and are the materials safe for our artifacts? But we also consider subjective questions, such as what can we tell visitors about the exhibit before they read the first word of text?

Horses are often associated with stereotypes of the “wild west.” Although the era of cowboys and ranching is an important part of North Dakota’s horse story, our exhibit will start long before then – millions of years ago when early dog-sized horses roamed the forests of what would become North Dakota. Our design, therefore, had to speak to much more than rustic cowboy tropes.

We decided on a modern design that could be appropriate for all eras. The stylized horse shape can apply to the many species of horses and is also a nod to the horse drawings in Native American ledger art. The “swoops” in the font echo the horse’s mane and tail, and evoke the movement of a running horse. The bright colors will be used throughout the exhibit to indicate new themes and topics.

The Horse logo


The Governors Gallery is almost 5,000 square feet, which gives us the opportunity to showcase some of the larger objects from our collection. In The Horse exhibit we’ll be bringing out a few of our horse-drawn vehicles. One is the Petersburg fire engine. Made around 1914 by the Waterous Engine Works Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, it was purchased by the fire department of Petersburg, North Dakota. It was gifted to the State Historical Society in 1954 and boasts the original paint job.

Petersburg fire engine

If you’ve ever wondered what a “one-horse open sleigh” is, we’ll have one of those on display, too. This velvet-upholstered, cutter-style sleigh was originally owned by the Marquis de Mores.

Sleigh originally owned by the Marquis de Mores

Stay tuned for my next post in May, which will have more behind-the-scenes details about developing The Horse exhibit. The Horse opens July 14.

Five Things You Never Knew About Working in a Museum

1. Hollywood, as always, gets it wrong.
This may come as a surprise to our faithful readers, but movies do not accurately reflect real life — especially when it comes to museum work. Our dinosaurs and dioramas do not come alive at night and terrorize the security guards. Well, maybe they do, but the security guards aren’t telling. The archaeologists do not get to take epic adventures in which they both defeat Nazis and recover priceless artifacts, but I’m sure they wish they could when they’re filling out yet another site form.

2. Fashionable socks are a must.
There are a surprising number of times when you go shoeless working at a museum. Exhibits need regular attention such as changing a light bulb, dusting, placing an object, or removing a candy wrapper that someone threw in. Often this means physically climbing into a display space, but to safeguard the objects and keep from tracking in debris, the shoes have to come off. And you don’t want to be the person with mismatched socks.

3. Some days it’s just gross.
One day an agencywide email was sent that said, roughly, “Whose thawed bison head is in the freezer!?” We have a chest freezer for keeping specimens for the collections or killing bugs that sometimes hitch a ride on artifacts. The frozen bison head would have been okay. Except the freezer broke.

Exhibit-quality bird poop

Exhibit-quality bird poop.

4. We use skills we never knew we needed.
Just a few of the stranger jobs the exhibit team has been tasked with include: assembling a windmill indoors, assessing the accuracy of fake bird poop, changing the tire on a Ford Model T, moving an entire mastodon skeleton 500 feet, debating the level of gore acceptable in a digital dinosaur battle, and researching where to purchase buffalo scent.

5. We get to work with AMAZING things.
Taken as a whole, museum collections are impressive —their size, scope, and age —and to some extent it becomes routine, working with these objects daily. However, there are pieces that give goosebumps — like one of the original Folios of Shakespeare’s plays, a thousands-of- years-old Phoenician tablet, or the broken gun carried by a follower of Sitting Bull — and it’s these that make you think, “I am SO lucky to work in a museum.”

Even when there’s an oozing bison skull in the freezer.

Installing a Traveling Exhibit

Five 53- foot semitrailers. That’s what started arriving at 7a.m. on a recent Monday morning; five semis packed full of crates and carts and tools and equipment that, over the next week, our install team would assemble in the Governors Gallery of the State Museum into an impressive 5,000-square-foot exhibit on the history of chocolate. And despite the years of planning, the diagrams, the scribbled notes, the emails and conference calls, those semis were a daunting sight.

This project began over two years ago. Before the newly built Governors Gallery opened in fall 2014, we had begun looking for a large traveling exhibit to feature in this space, which had been designed for temporary exhibits. We considered a number of factors in our search. The exhibit had to fit the 5,000-square-foot space of our gallery. The exhibit topic and components had to be suitable– supporting our mission, following our code of ethics, and engaging our audience. We also looked at budget, optimal scheduling, and necessary staff.

After many meetings, our exhibits committee decided on Chocolate, an exhibit produced by the Field Museum of Chicago. It’s a topic that we believed could reach a wide audience (Who doesn’t like chocolate?), with a proven track record of success (It’s been constantly traveling for 10 years and multiple venues have hosted it twice), and developed by a respected museum.

Chocolate exhibit entrance

Entrance to the new Chocolate exhibit.

Next came negotiating the contract, developing a unique floor plan, adding insurance, developing new public programming and marketing plans, bringing in new store inventory, and hiring temporary staff. And then, there we were, staring at a line of semis. We had seven days and 10 staff.

Installing a traveling exhibit is akin to putting together a really big Ikea product. Everything on the trucks had to be unloaded, moved to the Governors Gallery, staged, unpacked, and then assembled in a particular sequence.  The Field Museum provided a detailed instruction manual to guide us through the process. Every component was assigned a unique letter and number designation that corresponded to their order on the semis and their final placement in the galleries.

Chocolate semi load plan

Semi load plan.

Chocolate install schematic

Install schematic.

We learned that installing exhibits of this size is physically demanding. The 54 carts that we pushed and pulled into place were 7 feet high and varied in length from 8 to 12 feet.  It took two to three people to move each fully loaded cart. A number of components took six people to unload and move into place.

Carts with chocolate exhibit components

Mark Sundlov and Geoff Woodcox of the Museum Division maneuver an empty cart on its ways to storage, while Genia Hesser contemplates unloading the next in line.

Over the next seven days it came together. More carts were in storage than were in the gallery. Twelve foot walls went up, dividing the gallery into intimate spaces. Media was installed, bringing the rainforest sounds of South America to our northern museum. Soon, we were down to the small final details, a little-touch up paint, wiping down the cases, focusing lights, and vacuuming.

Chocolate the exhibit will be open to the public through September 6, 2017. And then we start the whole process in reverse. I’m going to start my calisthenics program tomorrow.