The Sam Noble Museum has deep roots in Oklahoma. It began building natural and cultural history collections in 1899, when Oklahoma was still a territory. Collections were lost twice in the early 1900s due to fires, yet Oklahoma never gave up on the goal of having a museum that “brings the world to Oklahoma and takes Oklahoma to the world.” Over the next 100 years, the collections grew at phenomenal rates, reaching more than 10 million specimens and objects today.
For over a half-century, collections were housed on the University of Oklahoma campus in attics, basements, abandoned barracks, and horse stalls. Most were stored in buildings that would burn down in fewer than seven minutes. These were among the worst storage conditions in the United States. In 1983, a new attempt (after many failed efforts) was made to construct a building to house the growing and endangered collections and to provide research, exhibit, and classroom space. The project took seventeen years.
In 2000, the museum moved into a 198,000-square-foot facility on a 40-acre site at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. This broadly supported project was completed with funds from the city, state, private donors, and foundations. Its 50,000-square-feet of exhibits and galleries trace Oklahoma’s natural and cultural history back more than a billion years. Almost all objects and specimens illustrating this rich history are from Oklahoma.
The museum has a dual role as the designated museum of natural history for Oklahoma, and as a teaching and research unit of the university. Its mission is based on scholarship and stewardship of Oklahoma’s heritage that is held in trust for the public. Museum curators and staff are dedicated to research, education, collections preservation, and service to the public.
The museum’s educational programs are built on a base of information from its research and collections activities. Programs serve a broad range of geographically, socio-economically, and culturally diverse communities. The museum’s public programs include community events such as Science In Action Object Identification Day, Spring Break Escape (when a week of science programs serve thousands of young people), holiday celebrations, and the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair. The museum offers workshops for adults, families, youth, and volunteers, including fossil field trips, after school programs, summer camps, and teacher workshops.
Programming helps address the lack of easily accessible science education opportunities that are available to Oklahoma youth. Educational programs such as Meet the Dinosaurs and Web of Life inspire thousands of students on field trips each year. Multiple no-cost outreach programs serve communities across Oklahoma. ExplorOlogy®, a series of educational outreach programs gives students and teachers an authentic hands-on science experience. Within ExplorOlogy®,, Paleo Expedition annually affords 12 Oklahoma high school students the opportunity to join museum paleontologists in real research as they unearth fossils and collect field data at locations in Oklahoma and in other states. The students receive training in the laboratory and the museum’s collections before departing on a motivating field experience. ExplorOlogy® , the museum’s most far-reaching educational activity not only caters to budding scientists, but fosters a unique, symbiotic relationship between educational outreach and museum research. ExplorOlogy® has served more than 53,000 students from over 150 schools in 55 (of 70) counties across Oklahoma since its launch in 2007. Most ExplorOlogy® students continue on to university studies and two participants won prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarships.
Oklahoma was designated as a forced destination for Native American tribes from throughout the United States during the mid- to late 1800s. Tribes were removed from their homelands and relocated in Oklahoma to make new lives within what was designated as Indian Territory. As a result, Oklahoma today has the greatest diversity of Native peoples of any state in the U.S., as well as the largest number of Native languages spoken by tribal members. Many of these languages were unwritten and government policies of the 1800s and early 1900s forbade the use of Native languages by Native people. Thus many of the tribe’s original languages are endangered as elders who still speak their language die, taking with them the memories of their Native tongues.
The Sam Noble Museum, which maintains a vast collection of documentations and resources for Native languages, is committed to supporting language revitalization with programs and partnerships. The museum traces the 30,000-year history of Native people in Oklahoma, beginning with the archaeological evidence of humans in the state and ending with an examination of what it means to be Native American in Oklahoma today. Revitalizing and renewing languages is a long-term commitment on the part of the museum to individuals, communities, and the larger public.
Native languages in America are sitting on two precipices. Some are endangered, their final Native speakers dying without passing on enough information to educate future generations. Others are on the cusp of revitalization, gaining momentum through innovative new ideas designed to interest and engage new language learners. To help foster this revitalization, the museum hosts the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair in which thousands participate each year, a unique event in which children and young people interpret their Native languages into creative performances, art, poetry and prose. All works are recorded and archived in the museum’s collection dedicated solely to language revitalization, so that researchers may access these interpretations of Native language.
The museum was a proud recipient of the national award for heritage preservation in 2004 and the American Alliance of Museums accreditation in 2014 for the fourth consecutive time. It is one of only 1,005 accredited museums in the U.S. According to the Accreditation Report, a major strength of the museum is the visionary leadership. Committee members noted how a very strong team of staff members works collaboratively to create state-of-the-art exhibits and programs. They also complimented the strong research culture, curators, and the unique exhibit experience, all of which enable the museum to surpass what many university museums are able to achieve.
On May 9, 2014, the Sam Noble Museum made history as the first Oklahoma institution to receive the National Medal for Museum and Library Services, the nation’s highest honor conferred on museums and libraries for service to their community. Winners were selected from nationwide nominations of institutions that demonstrate innovative approaches to public service, significantly exceeding the expected levels of community outreach. Mrs. Michelle Obama presented the award in a ceremony at the White House.
It has been a long journey for the museum across three centuries. The barns and stables that were the original museum buildings are now only a memory. The museum has evolved significantly to meet the needs of its collections and its community. By creating a new space for learning and research, providing innovative educational resources, and conserving our cultural and natural heritage, the museum has come to occupy a vital position in the community. Moving forward, the museum will continue to dedicate its collections and resources to serving the many communities of Oklahoma’s museum of natural and cultural history.
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