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”.