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.

Objects connect us to our communities, our culture, and our history through the stories they help us tell. There are a lot of great techniques to spark fresh thinking about these objects and stories, and to help us become fully engaged in this process. In order to demonstrate a few of these ideas, I picked a random object from a colleague’s desk. It’s a tiny ceramic dinosaur, hand painted in shades of brown, green, and yellow.

Ceramic Dinosaur

First we can try out a standard description: Hand-painted ceramic dinosaur. It’s factual, but maybe a little dry. This is a good starting point, but we can take it further. Next, let’s think about writing an exhibit label for this little guy. The type of museum, and their mission, helps determine how an object is interpreted. A label in a children’s museum might look something like this: How did a Stegosaurus protect itself from other dinosaurs? A label in a science museum might look a bit more like this: Stegosaurus is a genus of armored stegosaurid dinosaur. A history museum might produce a label more like this: This ceramic dinosaur was made by the Whiteclay Pottery Company from 1904 to 1922. Not only does the museum type and mission matter, but we also need to know who our primary audience is going to be. First graders, college students, and paleontologists are each going to have different expectations of a label. Understanding our mission and audience make a big difference for what kind of text we create. We’ll have to work hard to make sure we are engaging as diverse a group as we can.

Other methods of writing about an object might seem a little silly, but they still serve an important purpose. Most importantly, we can push ourselves to go in new directions. Writing a short story about an object or in first person from the object’s perspective is a great activity to use with kids. Working individually or in groups, have them create a story for the dinosaur. We can also use this to incorporate several topics into a project including history, science, math, and art. We could use these techniques to focus on Stegosaurus anatomy, learn about the artist who created the dinosaur; or even to learn about how pottery was created in a particular community.

Now we can try some other creative writing techniques. Write a diary entry, a song, a play, a haiku, a limerick, or other poem either about the dinosaur, or from its perspective. Let visual learners paint a picture of the dinosaur. Have kids get up out of their chairs and move around like dinosaurs. Try tweeting as your object:

Stegosaurus @realspikes - 5m
Check out my show at the Met this weekend: Disarticulate This!


Museum professionals and teachers incorporate seemingly odd techniques like these with great results. These methods can be used with virtually any object in a museum collection, in a classroom setting, or from amongst family heirlooms. Even serious stories can be related through more creative thinking and engaging methods. Think about the endless stories a typewriter could tell—about people from your community (who used it); about businesses in your community (how was it used); and even about changing technologies (what came before it, what came after it). The only limits here are the ones we set for ourselves.