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New tellings of old museum stories

Angela Rayne, the new coordinator of the Dickinson Museum Center, stands inside the Joachim Regional Museum on March 16. Rayne is in the process of bringing the former Dakota Dinosaur Museum under the museum center’s leadership while making changes inside the Joachim Museum. (Press Photo by Andrew Haffner)

Angela Rayne, the new coordinator of the Dickinson Museum Center, is enthusiastic about her work. At the very least, she’s energetic — a trait she describes with a laugh as a kind of double-edged sword.

“I have this boundless energy,” Rayne said. “Everybody always says, ‘She’s really good but she’s got this amazing energy and it just wears you out.’”

That energy will likely be an asset in the job ahead, as Rayne was hired into the position with a track record of updating museums. She says the museum in Dickinson will be the fourth she’s “completely redone.”

Rayne was brought in after the former Dakota Dinosaur Museum was acquired by the city of Dickinson last fall and is currently overseeing its incorporation into a wider museum complex.

Currently, the spaces between the fossilized specimens and lifelike replicas in the dinosaur collection are filled with odds and ends from cleared-out storage areas as staff accounts for the space at hand to determine the best uses for it.

As Rayne stands among the models and pieces of the long-departed beasts in the hall, she describes part of her vision for the wing as incorporating more natural history to add an additional focus to the attention-grabbing reptiles.

Though the operations plan for the revamped center has yet to be approved by the Dickinson City Commission, Rayne said she’d like to open the dinosaur portion of the museum on May 1 with the intention of keeping it open year-round to bring it in line with the Joachim Regional Museum.

The two museum halls formerly shared a building but were divided by a wall and operated as separate entities. Late last summer, Larry and Alice League, previous owners of the dinosaur collection, began the process of transferring ownership of the facility to the city of Dickinson.

Now, the wall separating the two has been opened, creating a portal of sorts linking the human and prehistoric worlds on display.

Crowd-sourced exhibit building

While the sales agreement forged between the city and the Leagues forbids any changes to the dinosaur exhibits for one year after the sale, other changes to the cultural history displays and museum programming may begin soon.

Rayne said part of the redevelopment will be an updated exhibit set for the Joachim powered by public involvement.

“What’s unique about this is we’re not going to pick the stuff out,” she explained. Rather, the early display will appear as a kind of “museum exhibit about a museum exhibit” that presents museum artifacts in timelines along with various means to gather input from visitors.

As members of the public decide which items are meaningful to them, Rayne explained, the exhibit will detail the next steps in building out a museum display, such as choosing which story to tell and which design techniques to use.

Though the entire journey to the final exhibit can take a little longer than a more traditional planning process, Rayne said the community support is an important asset.

“When you engage with the community they become interested and they learn about the points of history,” she said. “You have them read (the points), and, as they read them, they pick out which they like best by reading it six different ways — so that should be a lot of fun!”

Beyond the exhibits themselves, Rayne said the complex will also attempt to host a wider array of programming.

She said a new planned adult series called Prairie School, which will focus on pioneer crafts and skills like weaving, spinning, natural dyeing and cheese making. Events geared towards children will also include pioneer studies as well as those based around other museum items — including the perennial kid-favorite topic of dinosaurs.

Part of the dinosaur draw will fall to recently hired museum curator Denver Fowler, a trained geologist with a speciality in paleontology and a work record consisting partly of field studies in the Hell Creek Formation.

Rayne said Fowler, an England native and current curator of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., will lead a children’s paleontology school this summer.

Fowler will begin work at the museum on April 4.

‘There’s a reason to go back’

Along with professional staff like Fowler and Rayne, the museum campus is also supported and partially structured by the Southwestern North Dakota Museum Foundation and the Stark County Historical Society.

The Museum Foundation officially acts as a managerial body for the Joachim alongside the museum coordinator and, according to Foundation President Kris Lacher, is tasked with preserving area history while telling the story of the region.

In accordance with that mission, Lacher said the museum is at a “new and exciting point” as it absorbs the dinosaurs next door.

“Technically they’ve been under the same roof for however long, but in getting it under one director, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to utilize our strengths,” she said.

Lacher said the prospect of year-round dinosaur attractions is especially useful for expanding community outreach, as is the possibility of newer cultural history exhibits.

The introduction of some new skills and ideas from Rayne, Lacher said, could “really benefit the community.”

“Everybody’s always looking for more things to do in Dickinson and I think we can be one of those premier things to do with different activities,” she said.

Historical Society President Tyler Schoch also looked forward to the new opportunities presented to the museum center.

Schoch, whose organization is a local branch of the State Historical Society of North Dakota and helps oversee the Prairie Outpost Park and Pioneer Machinery Building exhibits at the museum center, said he was pleased to see a higher degree of unification of the different organizations on the museum campus.

“The boards are together with the city, all working together for one common goal,” he said. “We’re really excited for the future, that’s for sure.”

Schoch also pointed to the prospect of new exhibits and programming offerings as a favorable development and said the museum center would likely “change kind of rapidly” as new aspects are brought in. One facet of the changes to the facility will be a “redefining” of the museum collections.

“It’ll be more reorganizing and reinterpreting so it’s easier to understand and tell our story,” he said. “Instead of just having an object on display we’ll tell more of a backstory so you get a feel of who was involved and what they did.”

Though the history of the region might remain static — and, in the case of the dinosaurs, literally set in fossilized stone — the months and years ahead have a transformational potential for the historical narratives on display at the Dickinson museum.

Rayne believes the alterations she has in mind will help keep the site fresh and appealing to visitors.

“People don’t really like change unless there’s a focus and there’s an energy and you can see where it’s going,” she said. “If you can build that, people embrace it because then there’s a reason to go back to see and decide what history is meaningful to you.”

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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