By Suzie Thomas
During my research mobility period as an Affiliate at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in the city of Norman, USA, I have had the chance to visit lots of fascinating museums. One of my favourites, and part of the university, is the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Although in name a Natural History museum with palaeontology, mammology and natural history collections, the museum also houses ethnographic and archaeological collections. Much of the cultural material relates to Native American cultures in Oklahoma and elsewhere (prehistoric, historic and contemporary), but there is also a developing collection of world cultures. This collection’s expansion brings many examples of art and culture that cannot be seen anywhere else in the state.
I’ve been able to visit the exhibition areas, and also had the privilege of spending several hours with museum director Dr Daniel Swan, during which time we talked about the activities of the museum, and looked at some of the behind-the-scenes collection stores. I was also very curious about the relationship between the museum and the rest of the university, since University of Helsinki also has several museums, and we work hard to collaborate on subjects such as museum studies. The museum staff at Sam Noble are active in research and also university teaching – taking responsibility for leading courses at OU, and for supervising Masters’ theses and Doctoral dissertations. In addition, the museum takes on numerous student interns, helping train future museum professionals and researchers.
One of Sam Noble Museum’s most notable activities is its vital work collecting and documenting Native American languages, many of which are severely endangered. Many of these languages are found in Oklahoma, although documentation exists in the collection from other parts of the USA as well. Events around this work include the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair, which won the UMAC Award in 2017. UMAC (University Museums and Collections) is one of ICOM’s (International Council of Museums) international committees, and is global in its reach; Dr Swan received the award on behalf of the Sam Noble Museum at UMAC’s annual conference in 2017 in Helsinki.
The museum collection stores and conservation facilities are impressive, and I was fascinated to see enormous dinosaur bones and fossils in storage, as well as many original type specimens in the mammology collection; these are, in other words, the preserved first ever specimens from new species are discovered and named. Needless to say, both conservation and security are vital – especially in a state known for its inclement and sometimes unpredictably destructive weather (we are in Tornado Alley, after all). I learned about how the Norman Fire Service undergo special training so as to know which parts of the collection must be evacuated first, and how, in the event of natural disaster.
The permanent exhibitions cover the major geological periods, as well as showing contemporary flora and fauna from the diverse ecosystems of Oklahoma. An anthropology gallery shows Palaeo-Indian artefacts and periods, as well as more recent Native American history. This includes describing the so-called “Trail of Tears” when many Native American Tribes were displaced from their original territories to Oklahoma, only later to lose their land again as white European settlers arrived and staked claims to what was then called Indian Territory.
In addition, the temporary exhibition area tries to show ethnographic displays as well as natural history ones. The current ‘blockbuster’ exhibition when I visited was “Megalodon: Largest Shark that Ever Lived” showing the breathtaking scale of this now extinct fish. From what I saw, the exhibition is extremely popular, especially with younger visitors.
The museum is also active in outreach and education, welcoming many school visits to the museum. Another project I really liked the sound of is ExplorOlogy, taking school-age children on expeditions to experience field-based research. This includes Palaeo Expedition, which takes pupils into the field to participate in paleontological excavations.
I really liked the depth of the extent to which Sam Noble Museum staff play an active role in university education, and loved that it also engages with different communities, and especially young people, across Oklahoma. The museum also plays host to several events as part of Oklahoma Archaeology Month – a month-long celebration of archaeology across the state, coordinated by Oklahoma Public Archaeology Network with participants from museum, universities, local avocational groups and more.