Category Archives: Museums

The Game is Afoot

Sherlock Homes – The Exhibition recently opened at the Science Museum Oklahoma. A few days before the public opening I was invited to a pre-opening event and got to run through the exhibit with an exhibits colleague from the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History. It’s a wonderful little exhibit with an added interactive component that puts a notebook in guests’ hands and puts them on the case. You then move through the exhibit learning about botany, ballistics, blood-spatter, and even things that aren’t alliterative.

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Summer at the Museum

I was originally just going to throw some fun screen grabs from these early time machine  Phineas and Ferb episodes up on the Paleo Porch facebook page and be done. While going through the episodes for the shots though I noticed there was more to say and show about the museum than just the “back-in-time-with-dinosaurs” trope.

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R.B. Shead: Pre-Museum Years

Several days after visiting with Ralph’s great nephew, Bill, he called me to say he had found a small watercolor study for one of the old museum dioramas and a few charcoal studies that Ralph had done as a student and others that were originals submitted as accompanying illustrations for short stories.

I was finally able to go back with my camera and take better photos of the paintings as well as look at these new finds. Those “few” sketched turned out to be an enormous century-old portfolio filled with over 100 pieces of art that Ralph had done either for story illustrations, studies, or magazine cover layouts. I was in awe.

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The 12+ labors of Ralph B. Shead

For me, History is filled with people and things. I have never really indulged in the movements and theories and isms that seem to infect the past presently. For a historian this is a professional character defect, for me it is what brings history alive and allows us to find our connections to it.  It is likely why I spent so much time learning archaeology and paleontology. I believe it is ultimately what lead me to the history of science so I could talk about all of that at once.

When I first came to OU and was getting settled across campus with the few people I had some connection with I was shown around the Sam Noble Natural History Museum. On the second floor back in the hallway to the VP lab and collections there are these two enormous paintings (13.5 feet long by 3.5 feet high). After taking in the scale and content of these behemoths I immediately looked for the signature. “Ralph B. Shead ’42” and “Ralph B. Shead ’34 (or 39 it is obscured by the frame I believe it is 34).

Continue reading The 12+ labors of Ralph B. Shead

C’mon Get involved ’till the mystery is solved…

Continuing with the Scooby Doo theme here I get to update one of the most exciting stories that has happened since my time here.  You remember my last lament of the missing murals?  Well guess what isn’t “missing” anymore!

copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, the University of Oklahoma

Scooby Doo & the Missing Paleontology Murals

This all started with a mammoth butt.

This is a skull. The butt is at the top right. copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, the University of Oklahoma

Some time back (2 years!) I began a project at our natural history museum to scan, digitize, archive, collect all of the images and negatives that were in our Vertebrate Paleontology collection. Thousands of images later a couple things really stand out: The importance of the WPA in the growth of out collections (see WPAleontology) and a couple of large paintings had disappeared since the late 30s and early 40s.

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Prehistory and Paleolithic Pop Culture

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Image Source:

Turns out Hugh Hudson has a new film out that focuses on the discovery of the prehistoric cave paintings in Altamira. If you aren’t familiar with the discovery, the Cliff Notes version is an 8 year old girl named Maria led her father Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola to a cave which held amazing paleolithic paintings of bison among other wonders; scientific debates ensue.

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Image Source: Screen capture from Mark Knopfler Making of Altamira Soundtrack video on youtube
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Image Source: Screen capture from Mark Knopfler Making of Altamira Soundtrack video on youtube

The end of the 19th century was rife with debates on man’s place in nature as well as the entire story of mankind in general. The established French view was that prehistoric humans were incapable of such higher forms of thought required to create such things. Arguments about the past and the professional nature of the scientists and divided disciples were heated, marked, and many times personal. Paleoanthropology and other disciplines as we know them were in their infancies fetal stages and battle for the authority to pontificate on humanity’s past was as much the prize as finding answers to the questions they were asking.

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Image Source: Screen capture from Mark Knopfler Making of Altamira Soundtrack video on youtube
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Image Source: Screen capture from Mark Knopfler Making of Altamira Soundtrack video on youtube

Having done a fair amount of research on the Piltdown Affair and its context within the debates that came to a head because of find like Altamira, I am especially intrigued. Adding to that is the fact that like so many other important discoveries in this period it was made by an amateur. That is to say it was reported by an amateur since it was originally discovered by a child.

Drawing of Altamira cave originally from grotte d’Altamira, Espagne. Relevé du plafond aux polychromes publié par M. Sanz de Sautuola en 1880 (d’après Cartailhac, 1902) hosted on Wikimedia Commons

The movie itself looks wonderful since it will have the debates and forces of will involved (including the Church). It also included the wonder that fills Maria as the bison from the cave come alive in her dreams and become a part of her.

Bison in the reproduction museum in Altamira
Bison in the reproduction museum in Altamira

As with most things in life I didn’t get to this from any direct route. I actually first heard of this film through a trailer for its soundtrack. As bizarre as soundtrack trailers sound the bits and pieces around it are where I can glean more of the story.

Mark Knopfler and Evelyn Glennie worked together to create the score for the film and it sounds incredible. It was on Mark’s official Facebook page that I first say the trailer to the soundtrack. Complete with the reimagined stylized version of the famous bison on the front.

The bison form Altamira are iconic and you may recognize them from the plethora of Bisonte cigarette ads/packs that are everywhere. (I say everywhere, that may only be the case if you are as interested in Spain as I am).  If not everywhere then at least on which is a more useful website than you may think, especially for someone who studies visual culture.

Bisonte Cigarrettes, From
Bisonte Cigarrettes, From

Getting to the heart of the film is difficult since all the available trailers are in Spanish since it was released there at the first of this month (April 2016). This isn’t because the film is in Spanish, but because of locality (I guess). So the trailers are dubbed into Spanish which just strikes me as odd, even if I am appreciative of the fact that was produced in English.

There are a few English clips that are part of the making of the soundtrack video below where I grabbed some of the above photos. As far as the cave itself goes, it remains closed to visitors since the damage it sustained from visitor’s breathing in the 1960s. The museum close by has a full replica included some sculptures of human faces that you couldn’t get to in the cave itself.  There are also reproductions in Madrid, Germany, and most recently Japan.  The Caves were up for reopening to the public a few years ago, but in an effort to preserve the site the decision was made to keep them closed. looking at a fake trope was still contentious in 2014.

The Cave was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 and they have a short video on it as well. Until it gets wider release this will have to suffice to piece together what is going on.


Update: Aug. 3, 2016 Full length English trailer finally hits youtube.


Nature and Culture


What a way to end a season’s foray into the world of historic networks, correspondence, and collecting. After finishing Fan’s book, I did not image that there could be one with even more methodological examples of what I want to do. Samuel Alberti’s Nature an Culture is that book. It is exactly what I want to do in my own research only aimed at museums in the United States.

Original Manchester Museum. Field Museum looks similar.
Original Manchester Museum. Field Museum looks similar.

This book should be on every modern natural historians shelf, and the paperback is cheap enough on Amazon that it is an easy addition. This book is an institutional history of the Manchester museum, but is it also a biography of the objects inside the museum. Further still, it is a cultural history of the nature of collecting for museums. It is not hyperbole to say that this short book has something for nearly everyone.

Modern entrance to the Manchester Museum
Modern entrance to the Manchester Museum

The very first connection (and reaffirmation that I am traveling in the right circles for my project) came on page three where Alberti quotes Simon Knell: “Natural scientists, archaeologists, and art historians, in some respects, share a similar engagement with objects: they build whole subjects from material things” (3). If you have noticed there are many art related posts here, and it wasn’t until I came to the University of Oklahoma that I became more active in art history research. Having trained as a paleontologist and archaeologist prior to coming to Norman I was 2/3 whole so to speak. The work I have done in Art History here has seemed a natural extension of the work that I had done previously, and Alberti citing Knell may serve as an official (and independent) seal on my decision to have my outside dissertation committee member (and 1/3 of my graded comprehensive exams) filled by a prominent historian of Art and the American West.


Alberti is able to trace out nearly a century of change within one institution. Nothing related to the museum escapes his analysis–from the famous artifacts like the mummies down to the collections that never went on display. He also does not ignore the individuals who worked in and with the museum from the director down to the charwomen. This is the holistic approach that must be made in order to fully understand the world of museum histories and  their place within the politics of a university, city, or nation.


The book is more a collection of essays than a standard narrative. The thread that weaves the entire collection together is the museum itself.  The best way to describe it is to use the movie time-lapse example. In many movies, usually near the end, there is a dramatic time-lapse that brings the historical point of reference up to the modern. Usually this is a landscape shot which shows the varying skylines of a city. In the case of Nature and Culture it is almost the opposite. If we could create this effect we would see a hundred years of change within the building itself with its architecture maintaining our frame of reference.

The second instance of immediate endearment of this work came on page 5. “This way of studying the history of museums firmly links them to other spaces for collecting an display including zoos and menageries, even when curators were seeking to distinguish museums from such tawdry places” (5–emphasis mine).  My first masters thesis, The People’s Zoo: William M. Mann, The National Zoo, and the Birth of American Wildlife Conservation, 1889-1960 (linked to proquest PDF),  covered William Mann’s collecting for the National Zoo. I cannot describe the feeling you get when your past work comes back around to provide solid foundation for things that you have yet done. An added bonus was the records of the National Zoo. Since the zoo comes under the Smithsonian umbrella, much of the zoo’s official accounts and reports were recorded in yearly federal reports. The years of work within the federal records has also set me up nicely to work with the WPA records that will form the end of my dissertation on collecting.


The analysis of objects in this text pulls in my work on my second thesis The Gilded Skull in England’s Closet: Displaying Human Evolution at the American Museum of Natural History (which has yet to even make it to proquest or the library despite being deposited almost a year ago–it really is amazing that Lamar University has a more streamlined thesis process and binding options than the University of Oklahoma, but that is another issue) which covered the Piltdown Skull as an object with its own history and own biography. In this handy little book I have an incredible connection between my work done at Lamar University in Texas and the more recent years I have spent here. That fact alone serves to raise this book on my favorites list.

Modern exhibits
Modern exhibits
Modern Exhibits
Modern Exhibits

Alberti’s brief nod at the hunters as collectors rounds out the trilogy of points I would like to make. Those that were doing the collecting are generally left out of the equation that begins with the preparation of specimens. While Manchester had less active patron-hunters than either the American Museum of Natural History or the Smithsonian, that Alberti mentions their importance reveals much. To be fair, one of the most famous/infamous of the hunters for the American Museum and Smithsonian was none other than Theodore Roosevelt. There are examples of the friction between hunters and scientists in Britain however, most notably in the recent book Between Man and Beast (Doubleday, 2013).  Monte Reel follows the story of Paul Du Chaillu, his gorilla hunting, and Richard Owen needing the specimen to make his point.

Modern Exhibit cases
Modern Exhibit cases

Museum history is one of those topics that require a more diverse “toolkit” to adequately understand. Alberti’s work should be part of any course that looks at museums, collecting, or objects.  I would say that includes the early speaking tours that had specimens in tow. It should also be required text for almost any Museum Studies course. That it is a single museum that Alberti covers, is not as much of a weakness as one would think. It serves as an almost perfect case study to replicate with any other similar institution–and most of them are much more similar than they are different. Even with its peculiarity of being a British establishment, it will serve as a model for the museums here in the states. What makes it more difficult is, like baseball, the big museums in the US are separated by league–the American Museum of Natural History and the (National League) Smithsonian. There are many-many-more that will follow an almost identical curve of existence (adjusted only slightly for chronology) as the Manchester Museum, and Alberti has provided us all with the most efficient way to understand them in their entirety, as much as that is possible.

The Manchester Mummies
The Manchester Mummies
The other end of the whale on the books cover.
The other end of the whale on the book’s cover.

One Year On

In the year since I posted last, I have not only outfitted an more than modest sized traveling museum and finished a second MA, but was able to squeeze in a few shows for students as well. The greatest highlight to share is that in a couple weeks I will be presenting Paleo Porch at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Conference in Berlin, Germany. My abstract was accepted in the “Education and Outreach” session which is all poster format, but I will be going to discuss not only the outreach with traveling artifacts (in this case casts) but also how successful using the humanities to teach science outreach can be.

Below is a sampling of the talks I did in the Spring and Summer with the Paleo Porch Mini Mobile Museum. The Paleo Porch Facebook page is still running strong, and is updated frequently with paleo news, good fun, and bad puns. There is still a lot going on as I make my way towards comprehensive exams. Currently I am living in the Art History department absorbing everything I can on the Art of the American West, and the Myth and Memory of that same west. Understanding what artists were representing about the west, helps us to understand the expectations of that west (and what came out of it) that those living wast of the Mississippi were using to make sense of their world and relationship with it. With that in mind it also influences how museums were designed and filled and what artifacts were used to establish authenticity and authority including giant fossil bones, whether they were from dinosaurs or giant mammals. You can read about one such method of communication here
Until there is more to report from Berlin, and I have time to put together posts on Natural History Museums (which is my next plan for here) enjoy these candid shots of kids learning about paleontology and the history of science through the Paleo Porch Mini Mobile Museum. Total reach for the year is about 1100 and that is only with a handful of exhibitions. More to come! 
First “Paleo in the Park” 

Middle School 

Middle School

Middle School

Middle School

University Talk

University Talk

University talk layout and Q&A 

Pre-Collegiate Class at University

Pre-Collegiate Class at University

Pre-Collegiate Class at University

I will get some photos of the conference and my poster up when I return. The conference runs Nov. 5-8, 2014.

In the Gallery: The Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

If you ever make it to Oklahoma City make it a point to visit the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Formerly the Cowboy Hall of Fame don’t let its name and location fool you, there is something for everyone inside the gates.

 The Cowboy Museum, as it is known by its shortened name, has more than just cowboys and rodeos. Some of the finest western art–both historic and contemporary–is collected here either in their permanent collections or in the yearly contemporary exhibits which contain pieces that you can purchase if you are on the high end of art collecting.

The historic pieces are exhibited in galleries that do not allow photography, but through there website you can get a few teasing examples such as Bierstadt’s Emigrants Crossing the Plains, and Alfred Jacob Miller’s Cavalcade is there as well, in addition to Audubon’s eagle and catfish.

Emigrants Crossing the Plains, Albert Bierstadt

Cavalcade, Alfred Jacob Miller
 There are enormous collections for Frederic Remington and Charles Russell works, including a single casting Remington made for a patron, and a rifle that belonged to a friend of Russell’s. After complaining about a bad day of hunting Russell took the rifle and etched bear, elk, and bison onto the receiver and told him “Now, you’ll always have fresh meat in sight.” Remington’s arch-nemesis Charles Schreyvogel has an gallery as well. At one point Remington came out in the newspaper criticizing Schreyvogel’s painting Custer’s Demand about numerous points of fact. One of the men depicted in the meeting and Custer’s widow spoke out for Schreyvogal’s authenticity and the Remington dropped the matter. In the collection/archives at the Cowboy Museum there is a letter that President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Elizabeth Custer claiming that Remington “Had been a perfect Jack” about the whole thing. 
If you are more into sculpture the museum has you covered. There are scores of bronzes from those mentioned above, but their larger than life pieces are worth going to see. You are greeted by Hollis Williford’s Welcome Sundown. 


Once inside James Earle Fraser’s iconic End of the Trail is your first experience. This is the original plaster cast that Fraser created in 1915. It was meant to be cast into bronze but the First World War brought a metal shortage so it remained in this form. It was moved to the Cowboy Museum in the 1960s and to its present location during the update and renovation of the museum in the 1980s. Fraser is also famous as the artist that designed the American “Buffalo” or “Indian Head” nickel. 

 Fraser’s Abraham Lincoln is also housed in the Cowboy Museum, along with a reminder that Lincoln was more than just a Civil War and Emancipation president. With his signature on the Homestead Act in 1862, he opened the floodgates to the West. A million families of settlers flowed in the “empty” west before 1910.

There are also several monumental sculptures around the grounds that are also quite stunning. Below are a few, but you can see the rest here.

There is plenty of room inside for sculptures of this size indoors as well. Canyon Princess by Gerald Balciar is a beautiful animal piece made of the same marble as the Lincoln Memorial no less. 

If you are looking for a more authentic and actual cowboy experience not provided by art or art history there are numerous galleries filled with all kinds of cowboy gear from bits and bridles to chaps and brands. If you want to know anything about the 4,283,836 (completely made up number, but there are A. LOT.) of barbed wire (pronounced “bobwar” in many counties) then this is the place for you. 

There are by far more than two saddles, but you will need to go yourself to see what it is you are looking for.

If the TV and film west was more a part of your childhood than actual cowboy work, you won’t be disappointed in that collection either. Their memorabilia runs from the earliest western films up through the fairly recent. Including a short little film narrated by Sam Elliot (who else?) describing the history of “The Western.”

                              James Arness’ Marshall Dillon wardrobe
Marshall Dillon’s hat. 

Festus’ saddle 
Gunsmoke Props

                             Chess Knight of Silver on Paladin’s traveling gun. 

One of a few, they said the one that was actually wired with lights came with burn holes in it. 

Tom Selleck’s saddle and outback hat from Quigley Down Under

                          Sam Elliot, Conagher, Louis L’amour book/movie

Daniel Day-Lewis There Will be Blood

As I mentioned above one of the neatest things the museum does if the continuation of the western art tradition by hosting new large galleries filled with modern american west artwork. Even the artwork in the gift shop is stunning.

Photography is not allowed in this exhibit, but thanks to the winnings being posted online I can share a couple of my favorites and a page on the artist that made them. I have always liked the anachronistic, mismatched, or false grouped images. Anything where it shouldn’t be and imagined meetings of several famous people playing horseshoes or something have been the images that I have gravitated towards in modern context. My two favorites in this past exhibit do both. Martin Grelle’s In Two Worlds is one of those iconic native in white clothing images that we are all familiar with. Most of the top hats I saw before studying the Gilded Age were worn by Native Americans.

In Two Worlds, Marin Grelle, see it and more here.
One that got a full HA! as I saw it was Bruce Greene’s Wall Street From the Saddle Seat. I love it not only because it used that same trope, but because it turns the myth into the native. Civilization has come to the cowboy. Even the romantic ideal has started to vanish. 
Wall Street from the Saddle Seat, Bruce Greene, see it and more here

The Cowboy Museum houses more than you think, more than I thought for sure. We’ve lived a half hour a way for two and a half years and only went this week as part of my Art History class. It was worth the wait not only to see what was there, but to go through it with my professor who was the director there from around 1986 to 1996. He said that moving Fraser’s End of the Trail to its present position was “The longest day of my life.” They moved it all in one piece by crane over trees and through a giant window. Moving it was the quickest part, it took two hours to get it off the original pedestal and balanced properly in the crane straps and four hours to get it installed on its new pedestal.  When it was shipped to the museum in 1968 it was cut in to 5 or 6 pieces and rebuilt. 
There is much more to do in OKC than really meets the eye. Many people miss things like this because it is flyover state. If you happen to be in the area add this museum to your itinerary. If you are looking for something new to see or a new place to visit, make it a stop on your cross country drive. It’s worth it. Only this historical galleries are static, and there is always something going on there with artists’ talks and new exhibits. 
A final thought is I can never go into any kind of museum that features galleries of art of any kind and not think about the Dire Straits song In the Gallery. I hear it even more loudly in a space that highlights western art because the first line is “Harry made a bareback rider, proud and free, upon a horse…”It is definitely something to think about especially in a place that contains paintings of the American West from the 1830s and paintings and sculpture still being created about the same subject.