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