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Jamestown's National Buffalo Museum hires first curator

Rachel Johnson, the new collections manager for the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, N.D., getting ready to work in the upgraded Buffalo Hall of Fame on May 9, 2019. Tom LaVenture / Forum News Service

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — The National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown has hired its first professional collections staff as a step toward its vision of becoming a nationally accredited facility.

Rachel Johnson was named the new collections manager for the museum earlier this year. With a degree in anthropology and archaeology from the University of Denver, she first worked with the university’s anthropology museum before spending 11 years with the archaeological collection at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, N.M., and was also an interpretive planning consultant with an exhibit design company.

“I love animals and while I don’t have a background in wildlife or ecology or anything like that, it’s something that I’m very interested in,” Johnson said of working at the National Buffalo Museum with its live bison herd. “The work overlaps my resume and the subject matter overlaps my interests.”

As a collections manager for a nearly 10-million item collection in New Mexico, Johnson said it’s a big adjustment from running a single department in a large museum to wearing all the hats that come with working in a small museum.

The nonprofit National Buffalo Museum opened in 1993 under the North Dakota Buffalo Foundation with a mission to build awareness of the cultural and historical significance of the North American bison and to promote the bison industry. The museum houses artifacts and exhibits, artwork and a gift shop as well as its live bison herd.

Ilana Xinos, executive director of the National Buffalo Museum, said that to hire someone with 16 years of experience at major museums is fortunate, she said. Johnson is a collections manager but with a broader scope of skills.

“She is our expert in all areas of collections, exhibits and programs for now,” Xinos said. “Hopefully, we will have another staff member one day who is just in charge of education or programs so that Rachel can concentrate on her collections work.”

The museum is currently in a pre-accreditation process, she said. In the coming months the nine-member board will develop strategic planning as the accreditation process starts with the American Alliance of Museums, she said.

“Were at the initial stages of evaluating where we are and where we need to be,” Xinos said. “We are hoping to grow and scale up and someday be accredited.”

Johnson understands the many roles involved in a museum and doesn’t mind working outside of her job description, Xinos said. She has already made an impact by creating a new children’s area, she said.

Johnson said she was attracted to the small museum with a unique mission. There is room to grow and Xinos’ enthusiasm is contagious, she said.

“I will get to do a little bit of everything,” Johnson said.

The priority within the job description is to catalog the museum’s collection, she said. The priority of the moment is preparing the museum and the summer staff for the tourism season, she said.

“In museum work it's very unusual for two days to be the same but even less so at a small institution like this where you where many hats,” she said. “Getting to start something from scratch is just a fun challenge for me.”

Cataloging is important because so much of the museum collection is on loan from families, she said. Because of that, the collection is considered “minimal and accidental,” she said.

“A person comes with a thing and it’s here,” Johnson said. “There is not a systematic approach for where we are going and what do we want to have here.”

Johnson and Xinos like to run ideas by each other daily. The museum is a potential repository for all things related to the bison and it’s important to people who want a quality family experience to have an interactive experience and not just read text on a wall, she said.

“So the more things that we can get people to do and the more senses you can involve the better the experiences, the better time people have, the more they remember, the more they retain, the more we get our message across,” Johnson said.

The bison is not relegated to the days of old, she said. Bringing that story into current times is pretty interesting, she said.

Anything relative to the bison is appropriate for the museum, Johnson said. Future exhibit ideas include everything from bison cuisine through the ages or a pop culture collection relative to the bison, advertisement, mascots, toys and other things.

“It speaks to the significance and the mystique of this animal,” Johnson said. “We don’t need to play it straight all the time in terms of what constitutes a museum.”

For more information, call 701-252-8648 or visit buffalomuseum.com.

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