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Visiting the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.

Built in 1893, this was how the first building on the future University of Oklahoma campus appeared.  All of the artifacts gathered for the Oklahoma History Museum was stored here.  The building burned down in 1903.

Built in 1893, this was how the first building on the future University of Oklahoma campus appeared. All of the artifacts gathered for the Oklahoma History Museum was stored here. The building burned down in 1903.

The building trembled as the massive Pentaceratops shook its bony head, nearly knocking the three-thousand-year-old chalice to the floor. Across the hall, deer scurried back into the woods as a great multitude of birds took flight. A youthful-looking woman of the pre-Clovis culture was thrown to the floor; her face wore the masked image of annoyance.

Reminiscent of a child’s fantasy, or of a popular movie about exhibits coming to life, it is easy for the mind’s eye to conjure up this imaginative scenario. The Sam Noble Museum of Natural History vividly recreates these images of the past in a way that will leave one staring in wonderment.

Birth of the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History

The Sam Noble Museum of Natural History was still an infant long before Oklahoma became a state. Its dusty origins date back to 1889 when the Oklahoma Territorial Legislature founded a small natural history museum that would serve to protect Oklahoma’s rich heritage. Sadly, most of the early specimens were lost when the first administration burned in 1903.

If it had not been for Professor Albert Heald Van Vleet, the fire of 1903 would have ended all hopes of a new natural history museum being built. Van Vleet was a member of the original university faculty and had developed the first collections of Oklahoma’s natural history. If it wasn’t for his early vision and dedication, it is possible that the museum would have never existed. Even after his collections were lost, he continued to push for a new museum.

The remaining artifacts were housed in a new museum on campus at the future University of Oklahoma. Under the direction of Doctor J. Willis Stovall, the collections expanded greatly throughout the 1930s. Dr. Stovall was a vertebrate paleontologist. Throughout the course of his life, he has collected some of the most momentous dinosaur fossils ever found. He served as director of the museum from 1943 until his death in 1953.

It wasn’t until 1991 that the dream of a new state-of-the-art museum was realized. Samuel Russel Noble was an important benefactor and member of the OU Board of Regents from 1987 to 1991. He was a philanthropist who was dedicated to the enrichment of Oklahoma and its people. Noble served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation Inc., which was established by Noble's father, Lloyd, in 1945.

It was a large donation from this foundation, along with the friends, family, and business associates of Sam Noble, which drove the dream forward. The Friends of the Museum developed strong support for a bond election for a new building. In 1991, the city of Norman voted overwhelmingly to fund the project.

Groundbreaking of the new museum began in 1996 with museum director Michael A. Mares and University president David L. Boren presiding. They were also present when the building's dedication just a few years later, in 2000. The new museum was named after Sam Noble, honoring his dedication to preserving Oklahoma’s ancient past and his commitment to the future.

The Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History as it appears today.

The Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History as it appears today.

The Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History Today

Today, the 195,000-square-foot facility is one of the largest university-based natural history museums in the world. It is home to more than six million artifacts and specimens, including the largest Apatosaurus and Pentaceratops in the world, as well as priceless Native American materials, such as the "Cooper Skull," the oldest painted object ever found in North America.

The dedication and perseverance of its founders have made this museum one of the largest and awe-inspiring museums in this part of the country. Once inside the museum, visitors will experience a fascinating journey into the history of Oklahoma, as well as encounter artifacts from strange and distant lands.

The museum is conveniently separated into five distinct galleries: The Hall of Ancient Life, the Hall of the People of Oklahoma, the Hall of Natural Wonders, the Gallery of World Cultures, and the Discovery Room. In addition to these five major exhibit halls,

With hundreds of displays in five beautiful galleries, the museum offers a fascinating journey through Oklahoma's rich natural history, and glimpses into cultures ancient and modern around the world.

The museum features five major exhibit halls. The Native Art and Special Exhibitions Gallery showcases traveling displays from museums around the world.

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Hall of Ancient Life

The Siegfried family Hall of Ancient Life takes one back in time to around 500 million years ago when massive dinosaurs once roamed the earth. One can almost imagine the giant saber-toothed cats roamed through the thick forests of early Oklahoma. Follow the journey of the changing earth as ancient seas covered much of Oklahoma, and then receded to form what we know of today as the Great Plains. Discover the bizarre creatures that roamed these seas. Learn how mammals came to dominate the land after the ancient seas faded.

Within the Hall of Ancient Life, two dinosaurs on display spark particular interest. Pentaceratops, a native of Oklahoma, holds the Guinness world record for the largest dinosaur skull ever discovered. The skull is measures at just over ten and a half feet tall. Also within this exhibit is housed the world’s largest Apatosaurus. Longer than a regulation basketball court, the only way to view this fossil in its entirety is to ride the “Dinovater” up 26 feet to the second level.

Illustration of an early Native American fashioning a dugout canoe.

Illustration of an early Native American fashioning a dugout canoe.

Hall of the People of Oklahoma

The McCasland Foundation Hall of the People of Oklahoma houses early examples of Native American dwellings, tools, and artwork. This exhibit hall features 28,000 years of human history in Oklahoma, beginning with the Pre-Clovis people that migrated here across the ancient land bridge from Russia to Alaska.

The Clovis people were the first humans in Oklahoma to leave evidence of their passing. Traces of their great mammoth hunts can still be found, as well as evidence of their camps. You will also learn of the “Cooper Skull,” the oldest painted object in all of the Americas. An excellent audio-visual display highlights the history of the skull and puts you in the center of an ancient bison hunt.

Full-scale reproductions of thatched houses and dugout canoes used by the Mississippian people are authentically reproduced within the Hall of the People of Oklahoma as well. The Mississippian people were refined artisans, whose civilization was hundreds of years older than that of the Aztecs.

The Hall of the People of Oklahoma also features exhibits from the museum’s vast collection of Native American historical and contemporary artifacts.

The Hall of Natural Wonders Exhibit, featured in this picture is the Ozark Highlands.

The Hall of Natural Wonders Exhibit, featured in this picture is the Ozark Highlands.

Hall of Natural Wonders

The Noble Drilling Corporation Hall of Natural Wonders is all about the diverse and beautiful landscapes of Oklahoma. From the high plains of the western panhandle to the swamps and old-wood forests of southern timber country, Oklahoma presents visitors with a vast array of flora and fauna. The exhibits in this hall reflect that rich diversity.

Walk through a limestone cave exhibit and discover what life is like underground, or uncover hidden creatures in the massive timberland exhibit. The exhibits here offer a wealth of wonderment and knowledge about Oklahoma’s wild places.

The Merkel Family Foundation Gallery of World Cultures features artifacts from over 125 different nations. In this hall, one can feel the strength in the armor of a samurai warrior, or study the complex dexterity that has gone into the beautiful hand-woven textiles of the Mayan people.

Perhaps the most astonishing displays of world culture are that of the ancient Greeks and Romans. A massive Roman tile mosaic hangs on the wall just before you enter the gallery. Stretching nearly to the ceiling, almost two stories tall, one can almost imagine the glamour and glory of ancient Rome. Hundreds of ancient Greek and Roman artifacts are spread out across the exhibit hall, including everything from Greek and Roman coins to tombstones honoring the dead. This is the only collection of this magnitude in the area.

The Discovery Room

The Richard and Josephine Andree Discovery Room brings history to life. This room is filled with hands-on exhibits that both stimulate the senses and enhance the mind. Everything from a simulated dinosaur dig to live animals can be found here. Along the back wall, one can get up close and personal with real museum fossils and specimens. In addition, an easy view microscope allows both children and adults to study these museum specimens in their finest detail.

The Fred and Enid Brown Native American Art and Special Exhibitions Gallery highlights art from the many Native American tribes found in and around Oklahoma. These exhibits reflect the diversity and beauty of the art, as well as allowing a glimpse into Native American tradition.

This gallery also serves as a venue for traveling exhibits.

Visiting the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History

The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. It is located on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman, Oklahoma.

For more information call: (405) 325-4712 or visit their website.

© 2010 Eric Standridge

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