Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.
In the face of an emergency or natural disaster, what’s your first thought? Is it family, friends, your home or even your car? For many of our museum staff, who have dedicated their lives to the study of rare and precious artifacts, the safety of museum collections is a very real concern. After a flood, tornado or even a fire, how do collection managers and curators decide which artifacts to save? More importantly, how do they salvage the collections, their life’s work?
On Oct. 16 and 17, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History staff attended a three-part Emergency Response and Salvage and Recovery workshop led by Barbara Moore, a senior professional instructor of emergency response for cultural institutions. Moore has been working in museum collection care since 2000 and has worked with dozens of museums before and after disasters to reduce damage. During the two-day workshop, our faculty and staff learned all about risk assessment and methods for stabilizing damaged collections after a disaster.
Our staff is all ears
The workshop began bright and early Tuesday morning with a discussion for museum volunteers and staff about risk assessment and safety during emergency procedures. Prevention is key when it comes to these kinds of situations, so Moore listed several ways to reduce external and internal risks, such as trimming trees close to the building and never placing artifacts on the floor.
Moore followed up with a more in-depth discussion later that afternoon exclusively for collections and research staff. This phase of the workshop reviewed methods of stabilizing and drying damaged collections, conducting initial damage assessment, and material-specific salvage techniques. For example, paintings are of highest priority after receiving water damage and must be laid flat to dry. Textiles, however, can be frozen to prevent further erosion.
The second day was spent with the collections and research staff focusing on one of the most difficult aspects of museum recovery, prioritization. Curatorial prioritization takes into account the most used and valuable items, while salvage prioritization considers the most vulnerable items. Both must be considered when ordering salvage efforts. Finally, to review techniques learned in the workshop, the staff was given real-life scenarios and asked to respond using their knowledge on salvage preparation, organization of the salvage operation and salvage practice.
Moore discusses preventative measures
Of course, all of this is much easier said than done as emergencies can be emotionally taxing. According to Moore, the most common mistake museums make in salvage and recovery is “rushing in too fast without a plan or reason.” That’s why it’s all about preparation. So, how did the Sam Noble Museum measure up? According to Moore, the museum is doing a great job staying diligent and prepared for an emergency situation since her last workshop in 2007. Moore also commended the museums efforts at preventing disasters by reducing risks.
While we never hope to be in situations like those of the Barnum or Intrepid Museum, both of which were severely damaged by natural disasters, the threat is ever-present. However, Moore provided the museum staff with more than just a plan; she left behind peace of mind.
If you’ve driven by the Sam Noble Museum at any point since November, you may have noticed a rectangular, grass prairie sitting just behind the museum. No, no – we aren’t slacking on our chores. The tall brush houses several species of birds, some of which are extremely difficult to observe and track. That’s why a team of ornithologists hit the field last week to do a bit of bird banding before the March mowing.
Volunteer Robin Urquhart holds a Lincoln’s Sparrow
It all began last fall, when Joe Grzybowski, ornithology research associate, discovered several species of sparrows hunting for food in the tall brush. One of these species, the LeConte’s sparrow, is an exceptionally secretive animal that researchers seldom stumble upon. In fact, only 3,000 LeConte’s sparrows have ever been banded, only one of which was recaptured at a later time.
A LeConte’s Sparrow outside the museum
Ornithologists engage in banding as a means of tracking species migration and monitoring populations. Each metal band, issued by the US Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory, contains a serial number and is sized for each species. Fortunately, Grzybowski has a banding permit and was able to lead the team through the process.
“A small conscious change in landscaping practices can help support a variety of wildlife,” said Tamaki Yuri, ornithology collection manager. “For example, the hawks we have seen around the field this winter are evidence of healthy populations of grassland birds and small mammals in the field.”
The team bands sparrows outside the museum
In just two hours, the team banded six sparrows of four different species – two LeConte’s, two Lincoln’s, one Song and one Savannah sparrows. Given the high winds and limited time, Yuri says she is pleased with the results. The team will use this information to track population growth for the area in coming years.
“If these birds know that the grasses exist, they will come back next year,” said Yuri, “and it is important to have more research on the LeConte’s Sparrow.”
Yuri holding a LeConte’s Sparrow
Christie Godek looms over a broad, L-shaped desk in a black leather chair, staring down a binocular microscope with forceps in hand. Carefully, she picks through a thin layer of soil and rock – watching, waiting. At last, she unearths something of interest, what appears to be the bone or tooth from our shared prehistoric past. Slowly, she drops the fragment into a miniature, cork-sealed vial, scribbles on a small paper chart and returns to the tray before her.
Godek sifts through sandy soil
Such is the work of a “micropicker”, a volunteer in the vertebrae paleontology department who tirelessly sifts through gallons of soil to find shards of prehistoric remains. The work is slow and repetitive, but rewarding. In 30 to 60 minutes, Godek can process one coffee scooper filled with soil, typically unearthing a couple dozen fragments in that time. With no formal training in paleontology, she knows only what fossil preperator Kyle Davies has taught her – and that’s all she needs.
Five-gallon buckets waiting to be picked
Five years ago, Godek moved to Norman, Okla. after retiring from her job as a dental hygienist. She decided to get involved with the museum after receiving a volunteerism flier from her daughter, who works for the University of Oklahoma’s continued education department. Right away, she was hooked.
“It’s like an Easter egg hunt every time I come in,” Godek said.
A lot goes into micropicking. First, professionals sanitize the incoming soil to eliminate pests, which can damage the facilities and collections. Then volunteers must sift through the soil to salvage the specimens, which are often smaller than the tip of a ballpoint pen. Finally, undergraduate students mount the specimens to the head of a pin, which they drive into the cork that seals the vial. At last, the specimen is stored in collections for future use in research.
A mounted specimen rests on top of a pin
As you might guess, many volunteers do not appreciate the tedious sifting required of micropicking, but it is vital to understanding prehistoric ecosystems. Godek believes her previous skills as a hygienist make her an ideal picker, as she is accustomed to working in microenvironments that demand a detail-oriented mindset.
“For me, it’s fun,” said Godek. “Dental hygiene requires a lot of patience and repetitive work, but it’s always different. Every tray is different, too.”
One of many micropicking cabinets
Currently, there are just two micropickers at the museum, with two more in training. The first round of spring docent training will begin this weekend on Feb. 22, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. So, if you are interested in gaining hands-on experience like Godek, check out our volunteerism page for information about upcoming opportunities or drop by on Saturday! Also, be sure and sign up for our enewsletter to receive updates on this year’s volunteer of the year award and banquet.
“The only source of knowledge is experience.” – Albert Einstein
Learning isn’t just for the classroom
Think back to your days in elementary school. Can you recall all the stages of the water cycle? Which book your teacher read in the fourth grade? What about the sixth president of the United States?
But you can remember seeing the zoo’s giraffes on your second grade field trip or zipping down the pole during a trip to the local fire department. According to Scientific American, the human brain can hold a million gigabytes of memory. So, what gives? Chances are, some of your most memorable experiences happened outside out of the classroom – and that’s why experiential learning programs are so important.
Experiential learning is an integral part of education
In recent years, Oklahoma schools have faced increasing difficulties obtaining funds for supplemental learning experiences like field trips. Higher operating costs related to energy, transportation and insurance, among others, are forcing many schools to eliminate field trips and other experiential learning programs.
To demonstrate his commitment to the Sam Noble Museum and its educational programs, OU President David L. Boren committed $10,000 to the museum in 2007. These funds established the Fossil Fuel Fund (FFF), which provides scholarships to low-income, high-poverty area schools in Oklahoma.
A thank you note from a FFF recipient
Today, the FFF continues to provide scholarships to Oklahoma schools. Last year alone, 55 schools applied and $12,204.86 in reimbursements was distributed. That’s 2,949 students!
Each scholarship provides an average of $400 in transportation reimbursement to the school, and allows approximately 40 students to experience the top-notch galleries, exhibitions and artifacts found only at the museum.
Students take in the amazing Hall of Ancient Life
The FFF also provides a classroom-based educational program that students can enjoy during the visit. These specialized classroom programs are designed to complement classroom curricula and are correlated to current Priority Academic Student Skills (PASS) learning objectives for the state of Oklahoma.
A glimpse of our PASS-driven educator’s guide
“To see the wonder, the awe, the interest in my students as they viewed the exhibits, to watch them interact and answer the educator, and to experience their growth in social/community skills was so satisfying for me,” said one ninth-grade teacher from Ada Junior High.
Schools who visit the museum on a scholarship need only to provide the discounted student admission fee ($1.75 per student) for their entire field trip experience. In situations where the need is dire, the per student admission fee can be reduced waived. Funds are disbursed on a first come, first served basis.
“As a science museum, we understand that exploration, discovery and direct experience are powerful learning opportunities,” said Jes Cole, head of museum education. “We strive to make the museum accessible to all Oklahomans, and the Fossil Fuel Fund is one important way we can accomplish this goal.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, life, physical, and social science occupations are projected to add 190,800 new jobs between 2010 and 2020 as they grow by 15.5 percent.
With science occupations constituting such a major portion of America’s future job market, it is imperative that we invest in today’s students. If you would like to make a contribution, either on behalf of an organization or individually, please contact Pam McIntosh at (405) 325-5020. Or, if you would like to apply for scholarship assistance, please fill out the application on our website.
Help us make science unforgettable. Contribute to the Fossil Fuel Fund.
FYI: Before we lay down the 411 on our latest exhibit, you may want to have this skater lingo dictionary handy. You’re welcome.
Are you a newbie to skate culture? No sweat, we’ll teach you the ramps! “Ramp It Up! Skateboard Culture in Native America” is an exhibition by the Smithsonian Institute that shows the sick bond between Native American youth culture and the boarding scene. The exhibit features 20 skate decks from Native companies and contemporary artists, plus rare images and video of Native skaters.
“Ramp It Up!” will be rolling into the Sam Noble Museum’s Higginbotham Gallery on Feb. 8, where it will hang ‘til June 15. In honor of opening weekend, the museum will provide complimentary admission Saturday, Feb. 8, and Sunday, Feb. 9. How rad is that?
Why It Matters
We’ll let Jake tackle this one.
Family-friendly activities ✔
A live paint by three Native artists ✔
Silent auction ✔
Get stoked! We’re hosting a free “Ramp It Up!” special event at the museum on Saturday, April 5 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and you’re officially invited! We’re partnering with the Jacobson House Native Art Center, so you know it’s gonna’ be sweet. Don’t worry – we’ll be sure to send the deets your way soon!
Can’t get enough of the action? Right on! Check out Skateboard Nation, a series of minivids from the Smithsonian Institute. Now remember, nobody likes a boggart - so take a break from the daily grind and bring your friends and family to this insane exhibit!
So, are you on board?
1914: The first stone of the Lincoln Memorial is placed in Washington D.C. Charlie Chaplain stars in his second film, “The Tramp”. Doctors complete the first successful blood transfusion in Brussels, and World War I begins. When looking back on this most historic year, one critical event is often overlooked– the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon.
The Passenger Pigeon in 1898
With a population between 3 and 5 billion birds, the Passenger Pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly even the world. Written accounts describe how flocks would darken the sky for hours and days, and how the beating wings sent a chilling draft down from the sky. However, in just a few decades, the species became extinct.
Passenger Pigeon shooting illustration
Human exploitation, namely hunting and commerce, destroyed nearly every major nesting area over the course of 40 years. No one documented a successful mass nesting during this time, which had in the past contributed greatly to the survival of the species. This bird occurred only in North America and was no stranger to the Sooner State.
Prior to the twentieth century, the Passenger Pigeon often frequented eastern Oklahoma during winter. It is even possible that a handful of lesser-known Oklahoma landmarks were named after this species: Pigeon School (Cherokee County), Pigeon Roost Church (Choctaw and Seminole counties), Pigeon Creek (Latimer and Le Flore counties) and Pigeon Mountain (Le Flore County).
Le Flore County has two sites named for the Passenger Pigeon
Unfortunately, the story of the Passenger Pigeon is not the only tale of exploitation and extinction. Now, The Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum are using this tragedy as a cautionary tale through a notable conservation initiative, Project Passenger Pigeon.
According to the project website, the international campaign seeks to promote awareness about the Passenger Pigeon and other endangered species while encouraging people to take action against human-caused extinction. Ultimately, the project is about fostering biodiversity by prompting people to question their role in the larger ecological community.
As a strong advocate of wildlife conversation, The Sam Noble Museum commends the work being done by Project Passenger Pigeon and other similar efforts. From Sept. 13 to Jan. 18, the Sam Noble Museum will showcase portraits of engendered and extinct species, including the Passenger Pigeon, as part of the exhibit Rare.
Red Wolf (Canis rufus), photographed at Great Plains Zoo, Sioux Falls, S.D.
If Project Passenger Pigeon has inspired you to get involved, there are several environmental advocacy groups to join: The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Sierra Club, Conservation International and Wildlife Conservation Society, to name a few. Of course, joining an organization isn’t the only way to support conservation efforts.
"You could become informed about conservation issues, volunteer in community environmental projects or become a citizen scientist,” suggests Janet Braun, staff curator. “You could also join or donate to a museum or conservation organization while living and promoting a conservation lifestyle.”
Scientists estimate that there are over 8.7 million species of living organisms on Earth at this time. Biodiversity is a precious thing that must be protected, as the tale of the Passenger Pigeon reminds us. They say that history always repeats itself - but by promoting the conservation of species and habitat, perhaps we can build a better tomorrow from yesterday’s mistakes.
White Gyrfalcon by George Sutton, Date Unknown
Wait, art AND science?
Art and science are often viewed as polar disciplines, pursuits that seldom overlap and engage opposite ends of the brain - but it’s unlikely that George M. Sutton, exceptional illustrator and accomplished scientist, would agree. Throughout his lifetime, Sutton made invaluable contributions to both ornithology and art through his unbelievably realistic sketches of wildlife, which are currently available for public viewing.
So, what should I expect?
To be amazed. The Sam Noble Museum houses 3,500 of Sutton’s 20,000 paintings and has selected 75 astounding watercolor portraits for the George M. Sutton: Exploring Art and Science exhibit, which transforms the simplistic, streamlined gallery space into a lush, exotic hub of dazzling plumage. The exhibit primarily features artwork from Sutton’s Mexico, Arctic and United State’s expeditions and a few personal items of Sutton’s, including his treasured paint box.
What kinds of birds did Sutton paint?
Although this collection features a dazzling array of species from several exotic destinations, the exhibit is bound together by the passion of one extraordinary man. You can expect to see a diverse array of species in nearly every imaginable landscape, from arctic tundra to Mexican jungle.
Who is George Sutton, anyways?
George Miksch Sutton, a renowned artist, writer, explorer and teacher, followed his love of ornithology to the University of Oklahoma in 1952. During his lifetime, Sutton traveled on many expeditions in the continental United States, as well as to the Artic north, Mexico and South America. By the time of his death, he had written 12 books, over 200 scientific journal articles and illustrated at least 18 books. Impressive, right? Additionally, the George Miksh Sutton Avian Research Center was founded in 1983 to aid in aviary conservation.
Is it really worth a trip to the museum?
Absolutely. It isn’t everyday you get to see top-notch watercolor paintings alongside state-of-the-art science education, and that’s not something you want to miss. The exhibit will be on display from Jan. 18 to April 20, so there is plenty of time to plan your family daytrip. Author H. Jackson Brown Jr. once said, “Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity.” He’s right, you know. Don’t wait – flock in today.
Black-bellied Plovers by George Sutton, Aug. 1966
Long before dinovators and a famous bronze mammoth, the Sam Noble Museum was little more than the odds and ends of various university collections. The history of the Sam Noble Museum is a tale filled with disaster, frustration and never-ending setbacks, but it is also a tale of persistence and passion.
When the University of Oklahoma first began accumulating artifacts and specimens in the early 1900s, the artifacts were housed in a single building that served all administrative and teaching functions. Then, the museum was nothing more than a loose collection of goods numbering in the thousands. Tragically, the administrative building burned down several times during OU’s early history, and nearly all collections were lost by one particularly devastating fire in 1903.
Collections were once housed in administrative buildings
During the 1920s and 1930s, the remainder of the collection passed through a slew of buildings, being stored wherever possible in attics, basements and stadiums. In these conditions, the artifacts and specimens could not receive the preservation care they needed, nor were they available for public viewing. However, with the Great Depression underway, funds were scarce, and the collection would remain scattered across campus for at least seven decades.
A WPA project in western Oklahoma during the 1930s
A Work’s Progress Administration effort yielded a large collection of dinosaur fossils. In 1939, J. Willis Stovall, scientific leader of the WPA excavation team, articulated the university’s need for a permanent housing structure for the collection’s artifacts and specimens. In 1943, Stovall became the first curator and director of the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, part of which was moved into three abandoned ROTC buildings.
The first museum building was the university’s former ROTC headquarters
In 1953, Stovall passed away, and the museum was renamed The Stovall Museum of Science and History. However, the collection would remain in the same dilapidated buildings for the half a century. In 1969, collections from various departments were combined to strengthen fundraising efforts.
A leaky roof and limited space made storing collections difficult in the ROTC barn
In 1983, Michael Mares became curator of the museum and pushed plans for a museum building, moving its priority rank from number 116 to number 35 on the university’s building list. Around this time, Mares worked with legislators to change the museum’s name to the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, making it the official natural history museum for the state of Oklahoma.
Mares circa 1983
The museum collected a $5 million bond from the city of Norman and $15 million from a statewide higher education bond, but a new building would cost $42.5 million. Just as Oklahoma supported the museum through the passing of crucial bonds, the people of the state, led by alumni of the university, rallied together to make this visionary project a reality.
“The funds were raised privately, with everything from school children across Oklahoma, to donors large and small, “ Mares said. “There were several $1 million donations, and the largest donation was from the various foundations of the Noble family, which ultimately totaled $10 million. The only thing the Noble family asked was for the museum to be named in honor of Sam Noble, who had passed away while we were building the museum.”
The Sam Noble Museum opened at its current location on May 1, 2000 and welcomed a record-breaking 62,269 visitors in the first month. Although it took over a century, the fragmented collection that was once reduced to ash became a leader among natural history museums. The road was long and difficult, but now the Sam Noble Museum is finally home sweet home.
For more information about the museum’s history, be sure to check out our four-part YouTube series, “Behind the Rain”.
Jules Verne captured adventurous readers through his novel Around the World in 80 Days. Well, today we’re circumnavigating the globe in just eight pictures! So pack your bags because for the next few minutes, we’re going off the grid.
As the warrior scholars of Feudal Japan, Samurais had quite extensive weaponry: elaborate armor, menacing masks and fanciful swords, such as the one shown above from 1800 CE. For more information about Samurai culture and artifacts, be sure to check out the ethnology collection’s blog.
This ceramic drinking vessel hails from the Nazca culture of coastal Peru and dates to around AD 200-800. The artwork depicts a sacrificial scene, indicating that the item may have been used for sacrificial rites.
Kundu drums are a staple of the Sepik region in New Guinea and are used at nearly every ceremony, feast, ritual and community event. Drum makers whittle at hollow tree trunks to achieve the hourglass shape, then stretch lizard or snakeskin across the top opening.
The Acheulean hand axe was in use for over one million years and is considered by some to be the “Swiss army knife” of the Stone Age. Likely used for cutting and butchering, this hand tool from Troche, Dordogne in France could date back to the lower Paleolithic period 1.8 million years
This white painted ware jug is of Cypro-Archiac origins and was likely produced around 600 BCE. Although little information is available about the jug’s use, ethnologists can use physical features to speculate about its history. “Typically, the more decorated a piece is, the higher it is in status,” said ethnology collection manager Stephanie Allen.
During the Classic Period, AD 200-800, this incense burner from Guatemala would have likely been used by the Maya to send prayers and offerings to the deities. The burner features an individual wearing a helmet or headdress possibly an ancestor or deity.
Made entirely of lion’s hair and hide, this Ethiopian headdress is likely from the early to mid-1900s. Because ethnologists are uncertain about the artifact’s tribal origins, very little is known about this piece. Regardless, this unique treasure remains a museum favorite.
Discovered in the famous Altamira Cave in Spain, this bone awl would have been used to puncture holes in animal hide for tailoring and manufacturing. The ability to alter clothing enabled those living 50,000 to 10,000 years ago to battle the brutal climate of glacial Europe.
That completes our trip around the world, highlighting artifacts from the ethnology and archaeology departments at the Sam Noble Museum. These departments house extraordinary collections, especially from Native North and Central America. Additional stories about artifacts such as these can be found on the Archaeology and the Ethnology blogs.
The Sam Noble Museum hopes to incorporate a permanent display for artifacts such as these in the coming years. Until then, feel free to view the ethnology department’s online catalog.
For more international adventures, be sure to visit our latest exhibit, The Art of Sport + Play, a display of international balls, created with unique materials from around the world.
Holiday shopping can be tricky. Instead of trolling the mall for a handful of generic gifts, why not get something a little different this year? As you already know, Excavations the museum store is prime for finding odds and ends that your family and friends will love.
What do Einstein, Darwin, Marie Curie and Nikola Telsa have in common? They all want to be underneath your Christmas tree. Four out of four scientists agree: bobbleheads make fabulous presents.
For the Sci-Fi Fanatic:
Who doesn’t love Dr. Who? More importantly, who doesn’t love this fantastic disappearing tardis mug? No one will ever forget who gave such a wonderful gift.
For the Proud Okie:
Show your Oklahoma pride with this rustic Scissor-Tail Flycatcher coaster. Feel free to grab the wooly mammoth and Apatosaurus matchers while you’re here! All good things come in a set, you know.
For the Christmas-Lover:
Nothing says Christmas quite like an ornament. Excavations has ornaments of all shapes and sizes: wool foxes, glass figurines, ornately painted and plastic dinosaurs for the kids. I guess you could say we’re a one-stop ornament shop.
For the Young at Heart:
I bet Rumble the OKC Thunder mascot would love one of these bison hand puppets for Christmas! Not a Thunder fan? There are also dinos and lions and beavers. Oh my!
Mark your calendars for red-hot savings from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, as Excavations hosts it’s annual holiday sale. Draw for your discount of 15-40% on your entire purchase!
Remember, museum members always receive 20 percent off all purchases at Excavations. No membership? No problem! Sign up now and start saving. Excavations is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. We look forward to seeing you soon!
P.S. Santa told us that museum memberships are going to be a hot gift this year.