by Rhonda Gowen

Claudia watches as they prepare a gallery for carpeting.

Claudia watches as they prepare a gallery for carpeting.

Claudia Berg did not set foot in a museum while growing up, but nevertheless has managed to wear a few ruts into what is now one of the biggest museum renovations in the country. As expansion coordinator for the ND Heritage Center reconstruction on the State Capitol Grounds, she has used her instincts and two art degrees to assist in development of many levels of interpretation and visitor experiences in the new facility.

Claudia is passionate and very articulate about one thing: Everyone can know and appreciate a little something about history. “It might not be some people’s favorite subject, but other topics which interest them can provide a conduit to understanding the field,” she says. Art, landscapes, geology, biography, and for kids, animals and color, can lead visitors into the discovery of history and make stories come to life. If their passion is fashion, let them examine the exhibits of teenage clothing or blue jeans over the years. If food holds a fascination, “Get firsthand experience,” Berg says. “Go see the Main Streets, the café’s, [taste] the knoephla in Napoleon, the fleischkuechle in Flasher. A key to understanding the past lies in understanding the present, talking with those people living the culture.”

Part of planning the Heritage Center expansion involved answering the question, “What makes a museum exciting?” Scientists and educators agree – it’s hands-on activities, and stories, not dates (though dates have their place). Include inspirational examples, role models, examples for kids, and phrases like “Did you know. . .?” “Children will discover that the grass is not greener somewhere else – great people do come from ND,” Berg says. “A child growing up on a ND farm can design a space suit going to Mars. Inventions and ideas come from experiences here. The Keller front-end loader manufactured in 1959 was the forerunner of the Bobcat skid-steer loader,” current product of ND’s world-wide equipment supplier, the Bobcat Company. In addition, the spirit of technological innovation was already in place here in ND for the oil and agriculture industries to succeed as they have.

In order for a state museum to be relevant to its citizens, it needs to present objects in meaningful ways. The Heritage Center strives to save both the real objects and the stories, photos and documents that illuminate them. Everyday objects, such as a pair of work boots or a favorite toy, can be as important in telling the state’s history as a tractor or a military uniform. Berg sighs, “Many objects today are so disposable – just like hitting a delete button.” The State Historical Society’s website lists objects currently being sought for the new exhibits.

The arms of the State Historical Society serve the far corners of the state. Acting as a resource for other “life preservers,” the Heritage Center is well-positioned with professionally trained staff to provide technical assistance to statewide constituencies. Working with numerous agencies, such as the Dept. of Transportation and State Parks and Recreation, resources are combined to create exceptional interpretation at all types of venues across the state. County and local entities consult the Heritage Center to bring added dimension to the economic development of their regions.

Tourists ask Berg all the time about local experiences, questions like, “What are those bright yellow crops?” Finding out the answers to those questions is what makes visitors enthusiastic about their travel experiences across the ND landscape.

History holds answers for today. With the coming of the oil boom, people wonder how it will affect the state. From Berg’s perspective, “History repeats itself; this is not the first boom. During the settlement of Dakota Territory when the railroad was taking over the landscape with smoke and miles of track, and prairie grasses were converted to cropland, it had a huge impact on the populations who had lived here for centuries.” Objects saved from history and the stories that accompany them can help compare the experiences of the past and present. In this way, individuals and groups can make informed decisions about the future.

When the first two new Heritage Center galleries open in early 2014, the “Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time” and the “Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples,” Claudia Berg, along with all the staff and volunteers at the Heritage Center, will be there smiling and gesturing to the people of the world. North Dakota’s well-kept past invites us in for a closer look.

Rhonda Gowen is a piano instructor at the University of Mary and a clarinetist with the Bismarck Mandan Symphony and the Missouri Valley Chamber Orchestra.