Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History has gone by many names since the institution first began.
From Zoology Museum to Stovall Museum to Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, the state’s official natural history museum landed on its current moniker after a generous donation from the Noble family as it moved to its current permanent facility, 2401 Chautauqua Ave., in Norman on the University of Oklahoma (OU) campus.
The institution celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, though museum director Michael Mares admitted that number is a little misleading.
It has existed in some form since 1899.
“It started in the mid-’80s to try to get the state to recognize the museum as the official natural history museum for the state of Oklahoma, being really the only natural history museum in the state,” he said. “And we worked with the Legislature to do that, and in 1987, they passed a bill. … Around that time, they recognized the state fossil [Saurophaganax Maximus, also called the ‘king of the dinosaurs’], which is the dinosaur we have and some other things. So we started to get that statewide recognition although we had served the state at that time for 80 years.”
This year’s anniversary commemorates the institution’s official recognition by the state and its subsequent name change from Stovall Museum to Oklahoma Museum of Natural History to Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. It had been named for J. Willis Stovall, a paleontologist and the first director of the combined natural and cultural history museum.
These days, it’s colloquially called “the dinosaur museum,” and for good reason.
Stovall oversaw the organization’s acquisitions during the Great Depression.
“The museum itself had sort of a rocky road — it had burned down a couple of times in the university’s history, and the collections were restarted,” Mares said. “Then, during the Great Depression, the collections really grew enormously because so many people were out of work and the federal government hired researchers.
“Stovall had a big crew of 30 to 40 people. That’s when we got the fossilized dinosaur and a lot of other fossils. … Between these curators and researchers, they brought in millions of items.”
Mares arrived at OU in 1981, when the institution was housed in about 10 campus buildings.
“None of them [were] very good buildings, and some of them [were] terrible buildings,” Mares said. “Some of them were barns and stables; others were temporary barracks that were built in World War II.”
The piecemeal museum faced an issue other than accessibility with its 1981 organization: protection from Oklahoma’s weather.
“Most of [the buildings] had a very rapid burn-down time, measured in minutes, actually,” Mares said. “I estimated the collections at the time as about 5 million objects, but no one really knew how many objects there were.”
Mares became director in 1983. He and others at the institution worked to pack and move the collections and spoke with the state Legislature about gaining formal recognition. With the state’s official seal of approval, thoughts turned to funding a new facility.
“We had been trying to get museums over the previous [years], and all of them had failed,” he said. “The market crashed, or the Great Depression, or the governor was fighting with the president of the university, and one thing after another.”
Mares said GI Bill funding in Oklahoma came from funds that would have financed building the natural history museum years before construction began.
“The town of Norman passed the first bond bill [in 1991] to provide $5 million for a new museum,” he said. “Norman doesn’t usually do these kinds of things; I believe the last time they did it was to help found the University of Oklahoma in Norman. So we got the $5 million — that allowed us to use state funding and we increased our private funding, and ultimately we raised $45 or $50 million for the new building and for the operations of that building.
“A lot of help [came from] the people of Oklahoma, from numerous legislators, from our local delegation from the town, the people of Norman and the mayor, so it was a very popular project — maybe the most popular project the state ever had.”
Construction of today’s Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History broke ground in 1996 and was completed by 2000.
“In a way, we were fortunate, I think, that we didn’t lose anything by fire or storm, which is always a great worry in Oklahoma, and we got a building that was designed to protect the collection on into the future,” he said. “It’s a beautiful building; it’s well designed. It was built as a museum, and it protects those 10 million objects, which are pretty priceless when you get into all that they cover not only in Oklahoma history and science but in world cultures.”
To commemorate more than three decades of preserving Oklahoma natural history, Sam Noble now publishes its newsletter, Tracks, in a classic, almost retro style. This year’s exhibits are a part of the celebration, as well.
“I know we have some exhibits that have come in that are celebrating this — the Great Balls of Fire exhibit is part of our 30-year celebration.”
Sam Noble partnered with Will Rogers World Airport for a natural history-inspired mural near the airport’s baggage claim. Local artist Nick Bayer created the installation, which remains on display until February.
The museum has much more than an anniversary to celebrate — it has also been collecting impressive awards on the national level.
“We won the National Medal for Museums (in 2014), which is the U.S. government’s highest award,” he said. “I got a chance go to the White House and meet [First Lady] Obama, which was great; I had never been to the White House. We also won in 2003 the National Heritage Award, which was shared that year with the National Archives, which stores the Declaration of Independence. So that’s the group we were in that year, and we did it for saving Oklahoma’s heritage and the new building, funding, conservation and the preservation of the collections.”
Mares said the institution’s digitized collections are used worldwide for research and reference.
“The museum has a very positive effect on a lot of areas that people don’t know much about. For example, our scientists, our curators and their graduate students are publishing research that’s known around the world,” he said. “I think our collections alone last year were sampled by museums around the world to the tune of 1 billion data points.”
Print headline: Noble calling, In a story thousands of years in the making, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum celebrates 30 years as ‘the dinosaur museum.’