Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.

 

“It’s the closest thing possible to time travel.”

If you’re friends with us on Facebook or Twitter, you’re probably used to seeing unending streams of adorable children digging for fossils in the Discovery Room. But why should they have all the fun? Every year, the museum offers an adult-only fossil field trip for Paleozoic buffs, fossil collectors, paleontology enthusiasts and everyone in between. Cool, right? You can thank our sponsors—Arvest Bank, Republic Bank & Trust and Fowler Honda.

  

Here’s the 411: Your two-day journey begins at the Sam Noble Museum Friday, Sept. 19. Our invertebrate paleontology curator, Steve Westrop, will lead participants into Oklahoma’s Paleozoic past with a look at some of Oklahoma’s finest fossilized specimens. Then, on Saturday, we hit the field.

 

On Friday, see some of the museum’s finest specimens like this pentremites

“On this trip we’ll go back to the Devonian Period, about 400 million years ago, when Oklahoma was covered by a shallow sea,” Westrop explained. “We’ll collect the shells of extinct animals that lived on a muddy sea bottom.”

Even though this event is adults-only, finder’s keepers trumps all. Whatever you find on the dig, you get to take home. Talk about a conversation piece! How often do you get the chance to hold millions of years between your fingers?

A specimen collected on a previous Fossil Field Trip

“It’s the closest thing possible to time travel,” Westrop said. “We can’t actually go to the past but if you know where to look, evidence of the past is all around us.”

 So, what should you bring for the big trip? Comfortable shoes, casual clothes, a sack lunch, snacks, plenty of water and—of course—your sense of adventure. We will leave the museum at 9 a.m. and return around 4 p.m., so brace yourself for a day of nonstop discovery.

 

Past participants dig up prehistoric sea life

According to Westrop, participants will leave the trip with several interesting fossils and an appreciation of how life and environments change over time. But wait, there’s more! Don’t forget the wealth of memories and insanely cool story you’ll have to share over your new conversational piece. Are you ready for a little time travel? Enroll today!

Watch history come to life! See exhibit construction from start to finish in less than 10 seconds with this snazzy time lapse.

(Source: youtube.com)

A Letter from Michael Mares

Hello all,

As many of you know, the Sam Noble Museum was awarded a National Medal by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in April. As part of that award, the museum will have the opportunity to preserve and archive its history in the Library of Congress with the help of StoryCorps, a non-profit dedicated to collecting oral histories.

From September 19-21, StoryCorps will be at the Sam Noble Museum to record a series of interviews. Each interview takes 40 minutes and consists of a casual conversation between two individuals. StoryCorps will conduct 18 interviews with two people being interviewed at the same time, and in doing so, will record the memories and experiences of 36 individuals who have impacted or been impacted by the Sam Noble Museum. Additionally, these interviews could potentially be aired on National Public Radio. For examples of previous interviews, please click here.

Many of you have been involved with the museum for years, and your experiences here are an integral part of this community. Anyone is eligible to participate, and I want to extend a personal invitation welcoming you to share your history with the museum. If you and a co-worker, volunteer, family member and/or friend have a special story or experience about the museum that you’d like to share as part of the public record, please send an email to pr@snomnh.ou.edu.

I cannot wait to discover the many ways you have shaped this institution and community. I hope you will join me in archiving the museum’s heritage this fall, so that future generations may always remember Oklahoma’s dedication to its natural history museum. 

M. Mares

 

One Small Day for Man, One Giant Leap for Elephants

Okay. It’s time we talk about the white elephant in the room. Every day, poachers kill an estimated 100 African elephants for their meat, body parts and ivory tusks. And it doesn’t help that the price of ivory has shot through the roof. Today the street value of an elephant tusk is about $15,000, and in China a single tusk can bring in $100,000 to $200,000! Of course, poaching is nothing new—but global conservation is.

Elephant poachers circa 1900 

In 2009, the Department of Fish and Wildlife seized two carved elephant femurs at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The bones were donated to us in 2010 and added to our mammalogy collection. Unfortunately, these femurs weren’t the first of their kind. Over the years, the museum has also received a wastebasket and end table made of elephant feet, plus three ivory tusks—one of which is intricately carved like the femur below.

One of two carved elephant femurs

 We didn’t share all of this to ruin your Tuesday. Actually, today happens to be World Elephant Day, a day for elephant-lovers, scientists and everyone in between. Today is all about spreading awareness and taking action to save wild elephant populations—before it’s too late.

 In case you didn’t know, the Sam Noble Museum is all about conservation. Our curators are constantly working on new research to help foster biodiversity in the wild. And as a vehicle for science education, we’re also big on spreading awareness about wildlife endangerment and protection. On Saturday, Sept. 13, we will welcome our newest exhibit Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species. Through museum specimens and photos by Joel Sartore, this exhibit tells the story of America’s endangered and extinct species. The elephant femurs above will also be displayed within this exhibit.

Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit, Brachylagus idahoensis

c. Joel Sartore, Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species

 Whether it is an elephant or one of the species featured in Rare, wild animals need our help. As you can see from our collection, poaching is alive and well—even in Oklahoma. Whether you sign a petition, spare a dollar or tweet to all of your followers, we hope you take a minute to get involved in World Elephant Day. They say an elephant never forgets, but how will we remember them after extinction?

How Did We Get 10 Million Specimens?

Want to hear something incredible? We house around 10 million artifacts at Sam Noble Museum. Crazy! Even though we’ve been around for over a century, you still might be wondering—where did it all come from? In Journey of the Shells, we mentioned how private collectors sometimes donate specimens and artifacts to museums. This integration is called adopting a collection, and it’s pretty common in the museum world. Take the University of Memphis mammalogy collection, for example.

 Former OU student Michael Kennedy began his relationship with the Sam Noble Museum as a PhD student of retired ornithology curator Gary Schnell. In the 80s, Kennedy became a renowned field mammalogy professor and even mentored current staff curator Janet Braun. Throughout his career, he developed an extensive collection of mammal specimens from the southeastern United States.

University of Memphis collection

The University of Memphis housed the collection, but as Kennedy neared retirement he knew his collection required a long-term home. Because of his long-standing relationship with OU, Kennedy proposed that the Sam Noble Museum adopt the collection.

“I’ve known Michael for more than 30 years,” said head curator Janet Braun. “I learned about mammals from him in class and on field trips, and the first specimens that I prepared were in the Memphis collection. This project was very personal for me, and I was committed to seeing the collection saved for the future.”

Specimens from the Memphis collection

To help accommodate the costs of acquiring 25,000 specimens, Janet Braun and director Michael Mares submitted a National Science Foundation grant. In 2011, they received three-year funding of $445,303 to catalogue and finish processing the collection.

“This is possibly one of the largest orphan mammal collections adopted by another existing collection,” said Brandi Coyner, current mammalogy collection manager. “Michael was very proactive in finding a home for these specimens, which is what makes this story so unique. It isn’t always like that.”

According to Coyner, abandoned collections are not uncommon. These orphan collections do not belong to any museum or institution and may be neglected when their caretakers pass away, retire or change jobs. Unfortunately weather, pests and other damaging forces often destroy these collections before they can be adopted.

But thanks to Kennedy’s proactive nature, we successfully acquired the University of Memphis collection in the summer of 2011. Despite record-breaking temperatures, museum staff spent 14 days loading specimens into a freezer truck for cross-country transport.  Was it worth it? Definitely.

Staff and movers take 65 boxes downstairs

“We never want to lose specimens,” Coyner said. “Natural history museums are nonrenewable resources, and if a specimen is lost, it’s as if that animal and research never existed.”

With the University of Memphis collection now almost entirely catalogued, the Sam Noble Museum’s mammalogy department contains approximately 65,000 specimens. We also now have the largest collection of Tennessee mammals anywhere in the world with 19,669 specimens. 

The acquisition of museum and personal collections is a common way museums grow and expand their collections. By adding additional or new species, researchers can cross-examine traits of individual specimens to gain insight into the lives of animals. In doing so, the museum grows one step closer to fulfilling its vision—to inspire understanding, appreciation and stewardship of the earth and all its people.

The Art of Philanthropy

If you’ve been around our staff for even a minute, then you know we’ve got talent! Olympic-level racers, canine rescue trainers, singers and musicians, romance novelists…we’ve got it all! Impressive? Absolutely. But what’s even more impressive is how these individuals use their gifts to better local, state and even global communities. Take Coral, for example.

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Coral McCallister

McCallister began working as a custodian at the museum in March of 2014. As lifelong artist, her eyes are always open for inspiration. Before long she found Bom Bom, a live-mounted Western lowland gorilla acquired from the Oklahoma City Zoo.

 “I saw Bom Bom many times in various enclosures at the zoo, and like most of us, I was in awe of him and the wildness he represented to me,” McCallister recalled.

 She began sketching after her shifts while mammalogy collections manager Brandi Coyner gathered donations for one of the Oklahoma City Zoo’s annual philanthropic events. As soon as Brandi saw Coral’s work, she saw a perfect fit.

 “Teresa Randall is a friend of mine and asked if the museum could donate a family membership to one of their philanthropic events,” Coyner said. “When I saw Coral’s sketch, I called her back immediately and told her I had something even better.”

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McCallister’s portrait of Bom Bom

 McCallister’s 19-inch by 24-inch pastel creation took nearly 15 hours to complete. Still, she had no reservations about donating her work to Zoobilation, a ZooFriends annual gala and fundraiser for the Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital. 

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Conceptualized Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital, OKC Zoo 

Coral made sure that her portrait really captured the essence of Bom Bom, down to the reddish tuft of hair on his head. Perhaps no one appreciates these fine details more than current owner, OKC Zoo head veterinarian Jennifer D’Agostino. D’Agostino was determined to win the piece at the Zoobilation silent auction. 

“There were several other people bidding on it but none that knew Bom Bom,” D’Agostino said. “Once, at the end of a medical procedure, he crashed and almost died. I did CPR on him, and he didn’t wake up for about 13 hours. I stayed with him trying to keep him alive. Because of that, I really had a strong connection with him.” 

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Bom Bom—OKC Zoo, Photo by Gillian Lang 

D’Agostino plans to hang the picture inside her new office at the hospital, as a reminder of Bom Bom’s role as a conservation ambassador for others of this critically endangered species in the wild. 

“We’re here to get people to see and care about these animals,” D’Agostino said. “Conservation is a global effort, but everything we do has an impact on conservation. We can all make a difference, even in Oklahoma.”

Of course, Coral is as humble as can be about all of her philanthropic efforts, including those with the Norman Chocolate Festival and Nature Conservancy. For her, art is a connection—both human and animalistic. In this way, McCallister hopes to continue using her art to engage with others.

 “I like feeling tied into everyone else,” McCallister said. “Art has gotten me through some of the hardest times of my life, and it makes life worthwhile. Giving back creates a kind of oneness, and it’s really a beautiful thing.”

In the Words of Taylor Hanson

As you know from Digging Deep for Leadership, each year 12 high school students from across Oklahoma participate in Paleo Expedition - a hands-on two-week paleontological experience in Black Mesa. This year Taylor Hanson and Zane Woods, two of our Board of Visitors members, decided to visit the site to do a little digging of their own! And of course, we were thrilled to have them.

Wait! It gets better. Hanson has chronicled the experience in a four-page story that will appear in the summer edition of Tracks, the museum newsletter. And today, we’re offering you a sneak peek! So relax, pull up a chair and lose yourself in the words of Taylor Hanson.

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In the Footsteps of Dinosaurs

After our introduction to the site we were anxious to get to work and be of some service. At the front edge of the quarry was a cluster of earth, which had recently been coated with thick layers of plaster carefully molded around it to protect the fossil during transportation before being examined at the museum.

Now that the team had a couple of extra willing strong backs, Zane and I set out to perform the task of carefully flipping the nearly 300-pound cluster of earth that was half in plaster, in order to finish the preparatory process of chiseling away the remaining sediment for transport.

We set out to perform this simple task with smiles on our face and a not-so-small streak of nervousness - knowing that in a matter of minutes we could be responsible for destroying millions of years of time-protected fossil and a fair bit of labor by our hosts. Thankfully with close instruction and a healthy heave, two science tourists were able to perform the task successfully (and greatly relieved to have done so). 

Over the period of the afternoon we took on whatever tasks we could.  We joined the team in the detailed and dusty job of excavating one inch at a time the excess soil and clay, each clinging to the bottom of the fossils earthen cluster, and I enjoyed every scuffed knuckle and dust-coated wipe of my brow.

All around me I saw a team of passionate people putting their years of dedicated study and practice into action, carefully unearthing a new part of history. To be among them brush and pick in hand as a total novice getting the chance to share in that discovery was absolutely incredible.

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Amazing, right? Now, we know what you’re thinking. Where are the other three pages?! To read the rest of Hanson’s story, pick up a copy of Tracks - available at the end of July in the museum lobby. Or better yet, become a museum member! We’ll even mail it to you. Either way, you won’t want to miss this article. Because whether you’re a lover of paleontology, Oklahoma or Hanson, there’s something for everyone in this rich recollection.

Here’s to the Red, White and Blue Star Museums

Nothing touches the heart (and wets the eyes) like watching a veteran reunited with his or her family. But what happens after the camera stops rolling? When the bear hugs are over and the tears wiped away? Whether Marines or National Guard, Iraq or Fort Hood, all military personnel deserve one very special thing – quality time with loved ones. 

That’s where Blue Star Museums comes into play. Blue Star Museums is a collaboration among the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families, the Department of Defense and more than 2,000 museums nationwide. In short, it’s a simple way for museums to express gratitude by offering military personnel and their families an opportunity to visit at no cost.

“As we kick off our fifth year of Blue Star Museums, more museums than ever are part of this military appreciation program,” said NEA Acting Chairman Joan Shigekawa. “Together with Blue Star Families and more than 2,000 museums, we are proud to help connect military families with the cultural resources in their communities.” 

Every year between Memorial Day and Labor Day, participating museums offer complimentary admission to the active duty military personnel and their families – including National Guard and Reserve. The Sam Noble Museum is proud to once again participate in this prestigious alliance in 2014.

“We are pleased to recognize the sacrifice that our military make in service to their country,” said museum director Michael Mares. “We hope they will enjoy special family time at the museum.” 

The Sam Noble Museum is one of many places in Oklahoma that hires veterans, and the Blue Star Museums program holds a special place in the heart of several museum employees. 

“As a veteran, it’s a humbling experience to know that individuals and institutions have such appreciation for the sacrifices service men and women make,” said Jen Tregarthen, PR and marketing officer for the museum. “I’m honored to work for one of those institutions.”

The Sam Noble Museum is just one of 30 Blue Star Museums in Oklahoma. Others include the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and the Oklahoma History Center. For a complete list of participating museums in Oklahoma, click here

At the end of day, it’s not about seeing the world’s largest Apatosaurus or exploring Black Mesa in the Hall of Natural Wonders. It’s about family experiences. We hope that you will share this post with a service member in your life, and to all of the military personnel out there – thank you for your service to our country.

Tools of the Trade

Thanks to viral videos like “Pizza to Supermodel,” we’re all familiar with the power of Photoshop. But did you know that scientists use Photoshop too? Take a look.

 Impressive, right? As you saw in the video, invertebrate paleontologists use the same software as top advertisers – but you won’t find them airbrushing supermodels.

As the name suggests, invertebrate paleontology specializes in the study of fossilized invertebrates. To study these small organisms, paleontologists must use a sophisticated method of photography to properly capture all aspects of a given fossil. While scientists do not use programs like Photoshop to transform an image, they do adjust lighting details to reveal parts of the fossils unseen to the naked eye.

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Ammonite 

Because cameras must choose a point of focus in close-range shots, the entire fossils cannot be in focus at once. That is why scientists snap a series of photographs – up to 100 per specimen – in which the focus continuously shifts by minimal increments. Often this process can take up to 20 minutes per specimen.

“Based on what taxa we are imaging, we usually take three or four standard views of an object – dorsal, anterior, lateral and so on,” said Roger Burkhalter, invertebrate paleontology collection manager. “Each view takes a couple of minutes to position and focus, then we take multiple images.” 

After all of these images are obtained, they are uploaded to a computer. Then, Helicon Focus software compresses all of the images at once. In doing so, the program merges the focused portions of each photograph. Then Photoshop is used to adjust brightness and contrast levels. In the end, the paleontologist is left with one crisp, high-resolution image.

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 Calyptaulax

According to Burkhalter, the Sam Noble Museum has been using this method of stacking for 5-6 years. Due to critical advances in software and camera hardware, the department has only grown more successful in image stacking with time. 

So, what becomes of a fossil’s cover shoot? Many will be published in articles in specialized scientific journals that document the fossils, but most are stored so that they can be accessed for later research or identification. But now, for the first time, we’re bringing our most exquisite work to you through Formed in Stone: The Natural Beauty of Fossils.

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These portraits and their respective “models” will be on display to wow museum visitors with an array of dazzling geometric patterns. From July 4 to Jan. 4,  2015, guests can enjoy a wide variety of spectacular of fossils ranging from 80 to 455 million years old.

“The fossils have a natural beauty that can be appreciated by the public, regardless of their level of interest in the biology and evolution of extinct animals,” said Steve Westrop, invertebrate paleontology curator. “We hope that the images will spark curiosity, and that visitors will be inspired to learn more from this exhibit, the permanent exhibits at the museum and our website. “

 Added bonus! We’re offering complimentary admission on opening day to celebrate. So whether you’re in it for the art, photography or science, join us from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 4 in admiring the beautiful handiwork from these tools of the trade.

Accreditation - What’s the Big Deal?

In the United States alone, museums employ more than 400,000 people and directly contribute $21 billion to the economy. Impressive, right? Despite these striking statistics, museums are still struggling. In fact, more than two-thirds of museums reported economic distress in 2012. 

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This sad dino by Roamin’ Doodles understands the pain.

Fortunately, there is something museum’s can do. The American Alliance of Museums offers accreditation to institutions dedicated to excellence and high professional standards. But financial motives aren’t the only reason a museum would apply for accreditation. 

According to the AAM website, some of the benefits of accreditation include: 

→ Increased credibility with donors and funding agencies

→ A clear sense of purpose and understanding

→ A valuable tool in lobbying local and state governments

→ Increased level of professionalism

→ Improved relationships with other museums

Sounds great, right? Of all the natural history museums in the United States, only 8 percent are accredited – the Sam Noble Museum included. That’s right! In 2014, the Sam Noble Museum was awarded accreditation for the fourth consecutive time. Of course, not all institutions who apply are accepted, which is why this is such a significant achievement. 

“This means the museum continues to meet the National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums,” explained museum director Michael Mares.

The museum endured a rigorous application process that consisted of a year of self-study and site visits by peer reviewers. It is not uncommon for the process of accreditation to take up to three years.

So, what does this mean for you?

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It means we are dedicated to preserving Oklahoma’s cultural and natural history, and we’ve been commended for our efforts to do so. Stronger relationships with other museums could also mean more loans for research and more traveling exhibits. As you can see, accreditation is a big deal. Don’t belive us? Check out this congratulatory video from AAM president Ford Bell.

The certificate of accreditation, framed and matted just beside Redbud Café, is on display for all Oklahomans to see, so they can continue to have confidence in the nationally recognized quality of their museum.