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.

Collecting the Everyday: The Most Important Thing You Probably Don’t Know We Do

When you think of a museum collection, what types of artifacts do you think of? Maybe dinosaur bones, antique cars, or a World War II uniform? Something old, maybe even ancient. While collecting from the past is an essential part of the Museum Division’s function, what is just as important is collecting from the present.

Most people don’t know that we actively collect from today’s world, and the typical reaction when they find out is, “Why would you want that?” To many, modern items often seem too insignificant to belong in a museum. However, the purpose of the Museum Division’s collection is to preserve a three-dimensional historical record of life in North Dakota. What do these everyday items say about our values, our technology, and our society? What common stories are captured and preserved from our lives? What will they tell researchers about us in 100 years? 1,000? After all, what is now old and distinctive was once a part of everyday life.

Take a look at five artifacts that we have collected from our contemporary world. Do you have anything from your life that can add to North Dakota’s story?

1. Car Seat (2016.43.1)

Cow pattern car seat

Used by the donor for nine months of 2015, the car seat was a hand-me-down from a friend whose son had grown out of it. Some distinctive things about the artifact include an expiration date, which is a relatively new safety feature. We also know that the print on the seat cover is called Cow-Moo-Flage, which amuses me to no end. Would we have captured those stories had we collected the item 100 years from now? We likely would not have, and it adds a human dimension to the artifact. The advances in technology also say something to me about how much we, as a society, value our kids!

2. Apple iBook G3 Laptop (2016.22.1)

Apple iBook G3 laptop in orange and white

Like many of our more recent artifacts, the laptop came from our State Historical Society staff. It was purchased through a grant in 1999 for $1,599 (nearly $2,500 in 2018 dollars) so the agency could build a website to “take advantage of the public’s growing use of the internet.” Sporting 64 MB of ram and a 6 GB hard drive, its specifications make it practically unusable by today’s standards. It not only demonstrates the advances computers continue to make, but with its distinctive exterior, shows late 1990s fashion. It also documents efforts to adapt to a major shift in society: the proliferation and use of the Internet.

3. Cereal Box (1985.46.4)

Cheerios cereal box

We have a large collection of food containers. It’s something that typically gets thrown out or recycled, so why would a museum want it? How much of our time and money do we spend either preparing or purchasing food? And do you really understand a culture if you don’t understand how and what they eat? This cereal was purchased for the donor’s young children in 1985. How many of us as kids spent a Saturday morning eating a bowl of cereal while watching cartoons? It’s a common childhood story that is captured when we preserve this artifact.

4. Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone (2016.41.1)

Samsung Galaxy S4 cell phone

How can you talk about 21st century life without acknowledging the monumental shift brought about by smartphones? We have mobile phones in the collection running as far back as a 1980s car phone. In addition to the stories collected with each donation, each reflects changing technologies and the transition to the all-purpose devices we carry around today.

5. Selfie Stick (number not yet assigned)

Selfie stick

Part of the rise of smartphones is all the accessories that come along with them. Though selfie sticks have been around in one form or another for decades, they became a popular smartphone accessory within the last few years.
Do you have something from your life that would add to North Dakota’s story? Send in a potential donation questionnaire on our website.

Strange Things Found: Five Unusual Artifacts in the Collection of the North Dakota State Historical Society

I am one of the fortunate people who get to work with and protect some of the treasures of our state. As it turns out, a few of those treasures are a little unusual. The State Historical Society began formal collecting efforts in the early 1900s. In the intervening century, what is now the Museum Division has assembled a collection of a little over 74,000 artifacts (this does not include the holdings of our other collecting divisions). With a collection of that size I still find things that surprise me, even after four years of working here.

1. Patsy the Calf (2010.52.1)

Patsy the Calf

Born on a farm in the Williston area, Patsy is a unique calf. If you look closely at her chest, you’ll see a twin that never separated while she was in the womb, leaving a mouth and undeveloped eyes under her neck and a large bulge on her rib cage. She was calved in April1976 and lived until June of that year before dying of pneumonia. Upon her death, the family decided to have her remains preserved by a taxidermist. Twenty-four years later, in 2010, she was donated to the State Historical Society. Keeping Patsy’s remains preserves an unusual part of farm life in an agricultural state.

2. Buffalo Hide Chair (13346)

Buffalo Hide Chair

We have many pieces of furniture in the collection that are upholstered in buffalo hide, invariably with horns used for components such as the bottoms of chair legs, armrests, and back supports. Horn furniture was popular and stylish in the late 19th century, though most mass- produced pieces were made with cow, rather than buffalo parts. To modern eyes, including my own, the look of horn furniture can be somewhat…unsettling…to say the least, and that’s why I included it on the list. We believe it was produced in the 1880s in Kidder County. With the prevalence of buffalo in North Dakota’s natural history, our collection of horn furniture is a very North Dakotan twist on a popular fad.

3. Novelty Coffee Pot (1994.12.1)

Novelty Coffee Pot

Some items just make you scratch your head, and this is one of them. All we know about the coffee pot is that it was given to the mayor of Pembina, North Dakota, around 1900. Glued to the side are rifle cartridges, dice, seashells, pocket watches, and military buttons. The list could go on. All of this was given a thick coat of gold paint. Who did this and why did they do it? The world may never know.

4. Shackles (1982.48.8)


Some of our unusual items are not unusual because of what they are, but because of the story associated with them. These shackles were used to restrain a horse thief known as “Club Foot” Wilson, who had stolen two mares in Mercer County, Dakota Territory, in 1884. At the time, there was a vote to decide the county seat, with a choice between the towns of Causey and Stanton. Realizing the race was tight, local officials offered to set Wilson free in return for his voting for Stanton, which he of course did. According to the donor, Stanton won by one vote, though the records I have at my disposal do not confirm that. By keeping this item, we preserve an unusual story about justice in Dakota Territory.

5. A Pioneer Murder Weapon (10895)

Model 1842 Springfield Musket

In February 1897, eight members of the Spicer family were brutally murdered in rural Emmons County. While there are conflicting accounts regarding motive, Thomas Spicer, head of the family, was shot and killed with the Model 1842 Springfield musket pictured above, while working in a cow shed. The remaining members of his family, including five other adults and two babies, were killed with other weapons. Five men were arrested in connection with the murders and though all were initially sentenced to death, two eventually went free for lack of evidence. It is unlikely that we would even be offered an item like this in 2017. Preserving it however, tells a story about the dangers of pioneer life.

Top 5 Most Fascinating World War I Artifacts in the State Historical Society Collection

One of the things I love most about my job is that I get to work with a truly world class collection. It is the product of over a century of collecting, and with nearly 74,000 artifacts, it never ceases to surprise me. We have lots of things that are just downright fascinating to me, not because of what they are, but because of what they represent and what they speak to. Items that give a human touch to an event or time period, or that give us an idea of what it was like to be there.

Our collection of World War I artifacts is rich with such items. The State Historical Society collected extensively during the war, bringing in artifacts from both individuals and from the US Government. I’d like to share my list of the top 5 most fascinating World War I artifacts, all items that will be on display in the Sperry Gallery at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum starting in August.

1. Orchestra Ticket and US Army Uniform Jacket (12455.1, 12455.3)

US Army Uniform JAcket and Orchestra Ticket

I recently completed a major project with our military uniform collection. I quickly learned to check the pockets of uniforms, because I started finding surprises. One of the best was an orchestra ticket from France crumpled into the breast pocket of a uniform jacket, like it had been forgotten there. What makes it fascinating to me? The last person to touch that ticket was probably the man who wore the uniform, and it may have even been when he was still in France. There is no way to know. It’s a very human thing to do, to forget things in your pockets, and it makes the artifact more personal to me.

2. French Combat Helmet with Battle Damage (1990.142.4)

French Combat Helmet

This French combat helmet, like many of our World War I artifacts, was sent to us directly from the battlefields of France by Major Dana Wright, a North Dakota soldier. What makes it unique is the actual battle damage—an entry hole from a bullet on the right side and an exit hole on the right front side. We don’t know how the helmet came into Major Wright’s possession, and we have no way of knowing if the French soldier who wore it survived, but it speaks firsthand to the conditions and dangers of World War I battlefields.

3. French Army Leave Slip (L815)

French Army Leave Slip

A resident of Fargo, Sydney Mason joined the French Army and served on the battlefields in the Ambulance Corps. In June 1917, he was granted leave to visit Paris. According to the pass, he was not allowed to carry luggage or take a horse. It fascinates me for two reasons: for one, I didn’t know that Americans joined the French Army during the war prior to seeing this. Also, how many of these documents actually survive? It is something that would commonly be disposed of after it was used, and many probably met that fate.

4. German Mourning Card (L92)

German Mourning Card

This mourning card was found in a German trench by a (then) private named Neil Reid, who was part of an American unit that had just pushed the Germans back. It was sent to his mother in North Dakota, who then loaned it to the State Historical Society. The card memorializes a 20- -year-old-German soldier killed in April 1918 named Peter Rappl. Was he a loved one of a soldier who had just retreated? These were often handed out to the families of fallen soldiers, but it is a question we can’t answer.

5. German Combat Helmet (1990.142.3)

German Combat Helmet

We have 18 German combat helmets in the collection and 22 dress helmets, making them far from rare. What makes this one unique? It was mailed to us directly from the Meuse Argonne Sector in France after being picked up on a battlefield there. I don’t mean that it was placed in a box and shipped to us—three 12-cent postage stamps and an address label were stuck to the side of the helmet. The label, which you can see in the photo above, is still attached.  Unfortunately the postage stamps were removed at some point in the last 100 years. I’ve heard you can mail almost anything as long as it has enough postage, but who knew you could drop a helmet in the mail and have it delivered?

You can see all of these items and many more in our World War I exhibit, which will be opening in August.

Acquiring Artifacts Related to Dakota Access Pipeline: Our Efforts to Document a Current Historic Event

History isn’t just in the past—it’s being made every day. Our mission includes collecting from the contemporary world because we want to preserve what it’s like to be a North Dakotan right now. We have a duty to document and preserve our current time for the historical record so future generations can study it and come to understand it.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project has many people expressing strong feelings on all sides of the issue. The scale and intensity of the pipeline protests are unprecedented in the state’s history. No matter what your stance, the controversy has become a significant part of North Dakota’s story and is worthy of preservation in the historical record.

We decided to start collecting objects related to this movement in November. We feared that if we waited too much longer, some of the objects that tell the story would be discarded by their owners.

Our public efforts started with a Dec. 23 article in the Bismarck Tribune, which outlined the objects we wanted to collect. We want to collect items to tell varying viewpoints of this ongoing story. Every perspective is equally important to help understand an event. We have reached out to private companies, law enforcement, state, tribal, and federal government agencies, counter protest groups, and people living at the camps to request donations. Our finalized list contained 28 groups or individuals to contact.

Museum aims to collect objects from porotest article

We first announced our collecting efforts with a December 23 article in the Bismarck Tribune, which gave a basic outline of what we wanted to collect and why we were gathering objects.

Donovan, Lauren. “Museum aims to collect objects from protest.” Bismarck Tribune, Dec. 23, 2016. Accessed Feb. 28, 2017.

Our first influx of artifacts came from a Feb. 3 staff visit to the Oceti Sakowin camp, which was being dismantled at the time. Someone at the camp directed us to a pile of items being discarded as residents left. We selected 37 objects that we felt encapsulated daily life at the camps, including sleeping bags, camp chairs, signs, and canned goods. We also took the opportunity to talk with people we encountered about what we were doing and encouraged them to donate.

Oceti Sakowin protest camp on February 3

Museum Division staff visited the Oceti Sakowin protest camp on February 3. It was very quiet (not to mention cold), as most people had left, and the camp was being dismantled. We collected 37 artifacts and spoke with residents of the camp about what we were doing.

Pile of discarded items

We primarily collected from a large pile of items that had been discarded as people left the camp. We tried to select items that would encapsulate camp life like a sleeping bag, camp chair, canned food, and hiking boots. Pictured is Registrar Len Thorson examining the pile.

In addition to artifacts, we are interested in recording interviews with people from all sides of the story so we can have firsthand accounts of their experiences, which will add another layer to the three dimensional artifacts we are collecting.

Our goal is to assemble a comprehensive index of an important event in North Dakota history. Do you have something to add to the narrative?

Signs and other objects from DAPL protest

We have received items from a variety of sources.

The Challenge of Traveling Exhibit Programs

When asked about the most challenging part of my job, the first thing that comes to mind is always the traveling exhibit program that circulates to some of the state historic sites our agency manages. While the exhibits staff writes labels, designs gallery layouts, and manages exhibit components, it is my role to care for the artifacts that go on display, from initial selection to final installation.

By the time I join the development process, a preliminary list of artifacts has been chosen by the exhibits staff. Often the items selected have not been examined in the recent past and important details such as size and condition are missing from our electronic database. A basic, bare-bones database entry can make something seem like a great choice for an exhibit, but sometimes upon actually seeing the artifact, it becomes clear that it won’t work. One example is a whale bone that, in the database, sounded like it would fit in my hand. When I actually found it in storage, it ended up being over six feet long! As we’re going through the process, we occasionally encounter unexpected situations that require us to adapt the original concept behind a case.

Whale rib

Sounding through a database description as though it could fit in the hand, this whale rib was planned for inclusion in an exhibit case. When I actually found it back in storage, it was over six feet long! We occasionally encounter unknown problems during the exhibit development process—sometimes due to size, but more commonly due to condition issues that make it unsafe to display an artifact.

Once artifacts are selected and assembled, I update all the information in our database. I take photographs of everything going on display, in addition to taking measurements and writing condition reports. All of this provides a baseline for an artifact’s condition before it goes on exhibit and would make it easier for us to recover the item should it go missing.

The exhibits staff and I work together on mock case layouts here at the ND Heritage Center. Using outlines that match the size of the exhibit cases at the site, we take the artifacts assigned to each case and, through a process of trial and error, arrange them in a way that is visually appealing while not causing damage. Once a layout is decided, any special exhibit mounts are prepared, and then I pack the artifacts for transport.

Mock case layout

Curator of exhibits Genia Hesser works on a mock case layout here at the ND Heritage Center. We need to ensure that artifacts will actually fit into the space provided and figure out if artifacts require supports or mounts. It is best to determine all of that prior to actually traveling to one of the historic sites, which are often very far from the resources we have in Bismarck.

Fabricating special mount

Some artifacts require special exhibit mounts that we fabricate in house. We determine what may need special mounts during the case layout process and create whatever is needed. I usually prepare mounts that come into direct contact with artifacts, so long as the mount is made of materials that don’t require power tools. Here I am sewing a legging to a soft mount for an exhibit here at the State Museum. I created the mount using corrugated plastic, polyester batting, and undyed muslin.


Packing the artifacts is a challenging balance between ensuring artifact safety and maximizing space. When possible, they are packed into cardboard boxes and wrapped in foam padding. Filling the state vehicle for the drive to the site could best be compared to a game of Tetris, only with pieces that are fragile and of historical significance. Sounds fun, right?

Loaded state vehicle

The loaded state vehicle, in this case a Ford Expedition, ready to go for our latest trip to the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center. Artifacts are wrapped in foam sheeting and placed inside boxes. It is a challenging mix of ensuring artifact safety while maximizing space.

Once at the site, the outgoing exhibit is taken down and artifacts are packed up. While the exhibits staff reset the gallery and prepare exhibit components, I unpack the artifacts going on display. At any given time, there could be anywhere from 50 to 100 artifacts to keep track of between the two shows. With sites that are in some cases four or five hours from Bismarck, it is essential to be consistent and keep track of the artifacts so none get lost.

Assembling plexiglass wall

Once at the site, I pack artifacts from the outgoing show and unpack artifacts from the incoming, while the exhibit staff assembles, prepares, and moves exhibit components. Graphic designer Andrew Kerr, chief preparator Bryan Turnbow, and Museum Division director Mark Sundlov are seen at the Missouri Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center assembling a plexiglass wall for a trailer that went on display in the site’s newest temporary exhibit, about rural electrification cooperatives in North Dakota.

Once the gallery is laid out according to plan, we place the artifacts in the cases and arrange the labels. Then the plexiglass vitrines are lowered into place and cleanup begins. While the above paragraphs make it sound simple and quick, the installation is a long process that often involves at least one unexpected, but solvable, problem. At the end of it all, we head back to Bismarck with another carload of artifacts and start planning for the next installation.

Installing artifacts

Once the gallery is reset and exhibit components are in place, we all work together to install artifacts in the cases according to photos we took of the case layouts back in Bismarck. Here I am putting the final touches on a case for an exhibit about rural electrification cooperatives at the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center. Once that is completed, plexiglass vitrines are lowered over the top and secured in place. In the background, graphic designer Andrew Kerr is using a laser level to hang photos and signage.

Finished exhibit

The finished exhibit. Each temporary exhibit represents weeks of work on the part of many staff members, in some cases from across our divisions. While the exhibit development process can be difficult at times, it is one of them most challenging, interesting, and rewarding things that I do!

You have what? Adventures in Mount Making

Exhibits are one of the most visible ways that we, as a museum, engage with the public. Since reopening in November 2014, hundreds of thousands of people have passed through the galleries to see some of the treasures of our state, while also learning a bit about North Dakota’s history. I see exhibit development as one of the most important things we do as museum professionals. As a collections curator, it is also one of the most challenging.

I am the primary staff person who prepares artifacts for exhibit. The toughest part about it is finding a balance between artifact preservation and visual aesthetic. Some items are simple; lay them on a shelf and they’re happy. Others require quite a bit of creativity on the part of multiple people to come up with a workable balance. I’d like to show you the work involved with one artifact currently on display in the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

The artifact, a pair of hide leggings, was one of the more challenging items I prepared for the Native American Hall of Honor exhibit, which opened at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum on June 2. They are both fairly soft and very flexible, and being made of hide, they can’t be sewn through. Because of that, there were very few points where I could attach either legging to a mount. They are also heavy and require a structure that is sturdy enough to support their weight. I also needed to use archival materials that won’t harm the artifact over time. The final element is the visual aesthetic—how do you stay within the constraints of all of the above while creating something that looks natural?


Here are the leggings that were to be mounted.  Made of soft hide, they would not stand up without being secured to a solid mount.

We have a large amount of cardboard tubes, and I decided to combine two for each mount, with a narrower tube at the bottom and a wider one at the top to replicate the general proportions of a leg. The leggings were created specifically for someone, so I wrapped archival foam sheets around the cardboard and layered them until the mount fit snugly and naturally into the legging, just like the leg they were meant for. I then secured each layer in place with strips of mylar, held together with double sided tape. To give the mount a more finished look, I wrapped undyed muslin around the top as well as a foam plug I cut to fit into the round hole.

Leggings mount

The base of the mount I made was cardboard tube that we had left over from rolls of foam, tissue paper and other archival materials that we commonly use in the course of our work.  I used a wider tube on top and a narrower tube on bottom, then wrapped sheets of archival foam around the tubes to match the proportions of each legging. The top of each was wrapped in undyed muslin to provide a finished look.

The leggings were to be displayed in a standing position. Without securing the leggings at the top, they would droop and slide down the mount. I would never try to sew through the hidesewing would cause damage to the material. There was one point on top where I could tack the legging to the mount, and that was a small hide strip that joins the two halves of material on each legging. I looped embroidery floss around the strip and into the muslin four separate times for strength and to spread out the weight as much as I could.

Display case

The finished product on display in the lower right.

Mounting the leggings was one of the more challenging parts of the exhibit for me. Most visitors probably won’t notice the final product, but that is the point of a successful mount!