Beth Campbell likes to think of the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum as similar to an ant farm.

“We’ve got all this pretty, smooth stuff on top,” said Campbell, visitor services coordinator. “Then you get down below and there’s all this activity that you just don’t generally see.”

While the public galleries of North Dakota’s largest museum could take days to fully appreciate, it would take a lifetime to view the entire collection of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Over the next several days, The Bismarck Tribune will give readers a glimpse of what it’s like behind the scenes.

In the lower level of the Heritage Center, paleontologists and volunteers work to prepare specimens they find in the field.

The division estimates it has about 120,000 specimens, and that’s a conservative estimate, senior paleontologist Clint Boyd said.

The most complete fossils, such as Tyrannosaurus rex teeth found south of Bismarck last summer during a public dig, go upstairs in the Heritage Center. Others are on display in more than 20 off-site exhibits around the state.

But the displayed items represent less than 1 percent of what the state owns. Other fossils in the collection, from a triceratops pelvis too large for the gallery, to broken, fragmented specimens in drawers and cabinets, are in a secure storage area, often accessed by researchers.

First-time visitors to the paleontology lab are often surprised, Boyd said.

“Everyone is shocked by how much we have in terms of material and how much work is going on,” he said.

Meanwhile, the museum division has more than 70,000 objects in the collection, with about 2.5 percent to 3 percent on display at a given time.

“We collect the history of North Dakota and her people,” said Mark Halvorson, curator of collections research.

Much of the collection is stored in the lower level of the Heritage Center, where hallways are wide enough to bring in a vehicle, buggy or large exhibit case through a loading dock. A 10-ton lift gets large items upstairs.

The collection features everything from drapes that once hung in the governor’s house to examples of household appliances throughout the years to Native American headdresses.

“Soup to nuts, we have it all,” Halvorson often says as he walks through the aisles of storage.

Vehicles and larger items are housed in two auxiliary storage buildings. The vehicles include a horse-drawn fire engine from about 1914 owned by the city of Petersburg and a 1928 hearse from the Haut and Marckel Funeral Home in Gackle.

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The archaeology and historic preservation division has 12 million artifacts, Wendi Field Murray, archaeologist and collections manager, said.

“That includes every tiny little flake,” she said.

With less than 1 percent of those artifacts on display, staff are working to take more photos of collections and make more available online.

“What we’re really trying to do is increase public access to those collections using technology,” Field Murray said.

The Heritage Center expects to launch a new program in 2018 that will allow the public to browse some collections on the Internet that are not on display, she said.

A 97,000-square-foot expansion and renovation to the Heritage Center was completed in 2014. Field Murray, who joined the staff in 2011, said anthropologists visiting for a recent conference were blown away by the facility.

“The quality of our spaces for curating are state of the art,” Field Murray said.

Staff in the archives division work to digitize more and more of the collection, which includes about 5 million feet of film. The film collection includes news reels and personal and home videos, with about 9 terabytes of film stored on a server to date.

Three large rooms in the archives division are full of floor-to-ceiling shelves housing a multitude of documents.

A manuscript collection features documents, such as the Oscar H. Will Seed Co. collection with business records, family photos and personal journal and scrapbook entries.

There are periodicals, even JC Penney catalogs used for identifying past items sold. There are nonfiction books on the state and Great Plains region. And there are newspapers being transferred to microfilm, a collection that grows daily with each new issue state papers put out.

Campbell takes new volunteers on behind-the-scenes tours, and they’re amazed by the size of the collection.

“The amount of stuff in there is just mind-boggling,” Campbell said. “You could never get through all that information in a lifetime if you tried.”

Reporter Jessica Holdman contributed to this story.

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(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)