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


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.

Out of the Ashes: The Story of the Sam Noble Museum

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.”


SNOMNH today

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”.

The Journey of the Shells

To many, science may seem to be a strictly objective discipline, black-and-white and void of emotion. Sure, it takes passion, but science is seldom regarded as possessing sentimentality. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Through its ability to reveal passions and spark inspiration, science has proven its ability to resonate on a most intimate level, as illustrated by Vicki Jackson and 150 drawers of seashells.


It all began on Sunday, July 28, 2013, when Jackson visited the Sam Noble Museum, carrying with her some 2,700 carefully boxed seashells. The collection was not hers, but her late father’s. Although Jackson’s generous donation of the collection to the museum’s recent invertebrates department is in and of itself a marvelous tale, it is the story behind the shells that makes this gift extraordinary.


Jackson believes that her father, Perry Yates Jackson Jr., began collecting shells after attending the Naval Academy many years ago. Since then, his compilation has expanded to include shells from both familiar and exotic locals: Hawaii, Florida, Virginia, California, Texas, Haiti, New Guinea, The West Indies and Seychelles, among others. The global nature of the collection stems largely from Perry Jackson Jr.’s service with the United States Navy.

 “The Navy allowed him to go all over the place, and wherever they docked, if he had the time, he would shell hunt. It was almost a form of meditation,” Jackson explained.

 Perry Jackson Jr. was not only an avid collector, but also a dedicated organizer. Until his passing in 1998, he maintained a meticulous catalogue of each and every item he recovered. According to Katrina Menard, curator of the Sam Noble Museum’s recent invertebrates collection, this degree of care is almost as rare as the shells themselves.

Read More

Bug Room Adventures

dermestid beetles and larvae in the museum's Bug Room

In keeping with the bug theme, the museum’s Bug Room bears a quick entry.

If you’ve visited our most recent permanent exhibit, the Noble Corporation and Noble Energy Orientation Gallery, you may have already learned about the Bug Room. If not… I’ll give you an introduction.

The Bug Room is a facility where the museum maintains colonies of live dermestid or “hide” beetles whose sole job is the cleaning of skeletons for collections. These littlest of the museum’s employees work for room and board, and do some of the most painstaking and delicate work in the collections.

Hide beetles eat flesh – they’re the same beetles you would find on any roadkill carcass – and they do it very quickly and efficiently. Where it would would take large, clumsy human hands many hours of tedious work to clean every scrap of flesh from a tiny mouse or frog skeleton, a group of hungry beetles can do it in a single day, and without any damage to the fragile bones.

Both the larva and the adult beetles are flesh eaters, though the larvae are the real powerhouses in the skeleton cleaning business. Don’t worry, they won’t chew your arm off if you get in their way. They are really only interested in meat that is dead. And not only dead, but dead and dried. Here at the museum, before a specimen goes into the bug colony, most of the flesh is removed by hand, and the carcass is put into a dehydrator to give it that tasty jerky-like quality the bugs prefer. A very small skeleton can be clean in a day. Larger skeletons, like a raccoon or skunk, may take several days, and bigger things, like an alligator, several weeks.

Once the bugs have done their work, a museum technician removes the skeleton from the colony and cleans off any remaining diners. She washes the skeleton off, dries it, and puts it into a box to go into the C02 bubble for final preparation.

The C02 “bubble” is really more of a tent. Objects to go into the collections are put inside, the tent is sealed up, and C02 is pumped in. The conditions inside the tent make it impossible for even the hardiest little bugs to survive, and after three weeks, the objects in the bubble can safely be moved into the museum storage areas, with no fear of bringing in pests that can damage the specimens already in the collections.

The Orientation gallery features a nice time-lapse video of the beetles removing the flesh from a small rodent, if you’re interested in seeing it.

The Norman Transcript published a story this morning about the Bug Room, along with a quick video of our “bug lady,” Larissa Busch. Click here to take a look at it.

New Year, New Blog

Greetings! I apologize for being so long in updating, but we were moving some cyber-things around to different servers here in museum cyberspace before the holiday break, and there were a few glitches, one of which involved access to our blog. But the new year brings fresh opportunities!

Beetles from the Recent Invertebrates collection

Lets talk about invertebrates. The museum has an invertebrate collection that doesn’t get a lot of public attention. At present there is no full-time curator for this collection, but that doesn’t mean that it’s in mothballs, (if you’ll pardon the insect reference). In fact, it’s undergoing a renaissance of epic proportions.

The invertebrate collection includes a wide range of specimens. Insects and spiders, as we know, account for an estimated 90% or more of all life on earth. A quick reference check tells us that there are 241 species of grasshopper in Oklahoma alone. But the collection also houses molluscs, jellyfish, corals… think of all the different types of animals without a backbone and they’re in there. There are a minimum of half a million specimens housed in this collection. And at present only about 7 % of them are cataloged.

Now, that may seem as if someone’s not doing their job, but believe it or not, most invertebrate collections in museums around the world are not cataloged: meaning each specimen is not given an individual catalog number. Perhaps this is because of the sheer numbers of invertebrates often found in natural history collections, or possibly it has to do with the fact that many of these institutional collections grew out of personal collections organized by the scientist or hobbyist according to his or her own design. I don’t know. But Dr. Janet Braun, the museum’s curator of mammals who has oversight of the collection, assures me that it is true.

Our museum is in the process of changing that. Slowly but surely, those half- million specimens are being numbered, cataloged, labeled and stored using state-of-the-art practices and materials. It’s not a job for the faint of heart.

Dragonflies from Recent Invertebrate collection

Brenda Smith-Patten is collection manager for Invertebrates, and must have the patience of Job and the mental focus of a yogi. She recently finished cataloging the collection’s dragonflies and one genera of bumble bees. Each specimen has been placed in an individual clear sleeve, given a catalog number, and databased (you can visit the collection’s catalog, and all of our catalogs, online if you want to:  just go to http://www.snomnh.ou.edu/db2/index.htm and you can browse Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species). Brenda has also compiled any information she can find regarding the date and site of collection, the collector and the up-to-date species name. This involves painstaking de-coding of the sometimes cryptic hand-written field notes, labels and records dating to the 1940s or earlier, as well as research into the latest taxonomic information. Species names sometimes change over time, and both the former name and the current name must be noted.

The same has been done for the mollusc collection. More molluscs are listed as a conservation concern than any other animals in Oklahoma because they are impacted by water quality and quantity. This group was therefore given a high priority for cataloging, and a grant provided new cases and supplies. Brenda completed the necessary research into the provenance of each specimen, then created new labels, numbers and database entries for all of them and tucked them away in their nice new drawers.

So that’s three groups down… untold hundreds to go.

On my recent tour of the collection I saw drawer after drawer filled with tiny little boxes of mosquitoes, jars of dragonfly larvae and boxes bristling with pinned insects.  I understand that our museum boasts the largest collection of riffle beetles in the world – some 150,000 of them – both pinned and in liquid storage. These last represent the life’s work of the late Dr. Harley Brown, former curator of the collection.

Needless to say, Brenda has her work cut out for her.

Would you like to visit the invertebrate collection yourself? It’s open to museum members, along with all the other museum collections and laboratories, one night a year: Members Night Behind the Scenes, held each year in October. All you have to do is become a museum member and you’ll receive a personal invitation to attend.