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Mark Halvorson

Mark Halvorson, curator of collections research at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, holds a rifle used during the Civil War stored with dozens of other firearms inside a vault in the basement of the Heritage Center in Bismarck. 

Last week a series of stories took Bismarck Tribune readers deep into the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum. Our reporters and photographers provided a glimpse of many items that aren’t on public display.

It’s fascinating to know that the state has become the ultimate collector. There’s everything from dinosaur bones to military uniforms to old vehicles to seed catalogs. Many of the items collected are out of sight, but they are not being ignored. There’s work going on about every day to restore donations and prepare them for possible exhibits. It’s painstaking work and sometimes it’s difficult to see the progress that has been made during a day.

The Heritage Center opened in 1967 and recently underwent an expansion. The Legislature budgeted $39.7 million in state general funds for the project in 2009, along with $12 million in federal or special funds to be raised by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. A grand opening for the Heritage Center expansion was held in November 2014.

While one goal of the expansion was to provide more space for exhibits, it was always known there would never be enough space to showcase everything the Heritage Center has in storage. The Heritage Center strives to rotate some of the exhibits. This gives employees the opportunity to create new displays and explains the work going on behind the scenes. Some of the exhibits they create are displayed in other museums across the state.

The state’s museum division has more than 70,000 objects in its collection, with about 2.5 percent to 3 percent on display at a given time. Some might feel the state has become the ultimate hoarder, but the Tribune doesn’t think that’s the case.

"We collect the history of North Dakota and her people," Mark Halvorson, curator of collections research, told reporter Amy Dalrymple. When you are doing that the number of items increases quickly.

The museum has an interesting collection of more than 1,000 military uniforms from the Civil War era through Operation Desert Storm. It’s not feasible to try to display all of them. The average visitor will be interested in a sample and then want to explore the rest of the museum. A scholar, however, might be intrigued by the chance to examine all the uniforms in storage.

It’s hard to put a value on North Dakota’s collection but in many ways it’s priceless. Objects from our past, once lost, can’t be re-created. Having 1,000 uniforms may seem like a lot, but each uniform needs to be considered a piece of our history different from all the others.

Paleontologists are working to complete a specimen of a plesiosaur, an 80-million-year-old massive marine reptile, for display. Where else can someone go in North Dakota and travel back 80 million years? And it's free to visit.

The series of stories revealed the great treasure we have in the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum. It’s one everyone should take time to enjoy.

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