The museum began at the University of Oklahoma as a "Department of Geology and Natural History" created by the territorial legislature in 1899. Dr. Albert Heald Van Vleet was appointed the first "Territorial Geologist and Curator of the Museum." He immediately began to collect and by 1902 had accumulated fourteen thousand zoological, botanical, and geological specimens. Unfortunately, all were lost in 1903 in the first of two devastating fires. The second fire, in 1918, destroyed a large collection of birds stored in a temporary wooden building. In spite of these losses, collections continued to grow as new professors joined the university.
Some of the most significant early acquisitions included geological exhibits obtained from the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, archeological items from Spiro Mounds in 1916, and collections from the 1924 Sykes Expedition to Alaska and Canada. The expedition provided the incentive for the university's president, Dr. Stratton Brooks, to obtain funds for a separate museum building. Unfortunately, although the state legislature appropriated the funds in 1929, they were immediately lost as a result of the onset of the Great Depression.
Dr. J. Willis Stovall arrived at the university a year later and set to work mounting fossils and building dioramas, in fact creating the first real museum room in the old Geology Building. Prior to Stovall's involvement, the museum was merely a series of display cases in various academic buildings, mostly serving as teaching aids for university zoology courses. Between 1935 and 1941 Stovall's ambitious dinosaur collecting was further augmented by the Works Progress Administration.
By the 1940s other collections besides zoological ones began to grow independently, and in 1943 the state legilature provided five thousand dollars for exhibits and storage space under the university's football stadium. Coincident with this, the university's president, Joseph A. Brandt, submitted a resolution to the Board of Regents asking for the establishment of The Museum of the University of Oklahoma and recommending Stovall as director. In 1945 funds were again allocated by the state legislature to construct a separate building. However, this time the funds had to be redirected for construction of dormitories for World War II veterans enrolling under the GI Bill. So, in 1947 instead of a new facility, the museum was assigned the old ROTC complex, consisting of a horse stable, a gun shed, and a five-thousand-square-foot administration building. This became the museum's home for the next fifty years, and in 1953 it was renamed the Stovall Museum of Science and History.
In the 1960s, with the space now filled to capacity, once more definite plans were made to construct a new museum building. Unfortunately, the potential donor died without making his intentions clear in his will. Over the next decades collections continued to grow, and by 1999 the museum had acquired space in an additional six academic buildings, most of which were old, leaky, and without environmental controls.
A more positive trend began in 1983, when the museum's curator of mammals, Dr. Michael A. Mares, became director. Legislation made the Stovall the state's official natural history museum and changed the name to the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Then, in 1988 the University of Oklahoma Regents approved initial plans for the building and designated sixty acres at the corner of Timberdell and Chautauqua streets for the new site.
In 1991, through the efforts of a group of concerned Norman citizens, a five-million-dollar city bond issue passed in a landslide victory, and fund raising had officially begun. A year later a state bond issue provided an additional $15 million, and in 1994 the Samuel R. Noble Foundation and Affiliates donated $10 million to honor the late Samuel R. Noble. The museum's name was changed a fourth time to the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Remaining money for construction was generated from private individuals, corporations, and foundations.
Groundbreaking ceremonies for the 198,000-square-foot building occurred on February 23, 1996, and after one hundred years of struggle the facility opened to the public on May 1, 2000, as the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: W. Eugene Hollon, "A History of the Stovall Museum of Science and History, University of Oklahoma [Manuscript, 1956]," Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, Norman, Oklahoma. Judy Jordan, "A Brief History of the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History [Manuscript, 1991]," Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, Norman, Oklahoma.
Julie A. Droke
© Oklahoma Historical Society