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Museums on the Plains
Published:
May/Jun 2004

Above: The striking statue outside the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center honors the state’s cowboys and cattle drives. Chisholm Trail Heritage Center photo

Below Children sitting in a Convair cockpit at the Jasmine Moran Children’s Museum. Elaine Warner photo

Before You Go
For more information before your Oklahoma adventure, contact the Oklahoma Department of Tourism at 1-800-652-6552 or visit the Web site www.travelOK.com.

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Off the beaten path, these small Oklahoma museums are sure to delight.
By Elaine Warner

n interstate highways, it’s possible to cross Oklahoma from east to west in about 5 1/2 hours and from north to south in less than four. The travelers who do this think they’ve seen Oklahoma. They’re wrong. And they’ve missed an array of big surprises to be found in small museums across the state.

Etruscan treasures

Tucked away on the campus of St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Okla., is the Mabee-Gerrer Museum (405-878-5300, www.mgmoa.org). Although it normally houses a small but creditable collection, the museum is preparing to host a blockbuster exhibition this summer and fall, “Unveiling Ancient Mystery: Etruscan Treasures.”

This exhibit features more than 200 pieces of Etruscan gold jewelry and bronze and terra cotta artifacts dating back approximately 17 centuries. Items come from the Vatican’s Gregorian-Etruscan Museum and one private collection. It will be the first time many of these Vatican pieces have been exhibited abroad and the only time the jewelry has ever been on display. The Etruscan extravaganza runs from June 1 through Oct. 31.

Bijou in the backwoods

Far southeastern Oklahoma–with rolling hills, clear streams, tall pines and mysterious cypress bayous–is one of the state’s most beautiful areas. Miles from any metropolitan area, it is the last place one expects to find a sophisticated art museum. But that’s exactly what visitors find at the Museum of the Red River in Idabel (580-286-3616, www.museumoftheredriver.org).

The museum’s focus is on the arts of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, from the natives of Alaska to the works of tribes from southernmost South America.

Founders Mary and Quintus Herron were concerned that with encroaching civilization, native arts were being lost. The museum began to acquire pieces produced by native artists living and working in their traditional settings. Prehistoric, early historic and contemporary pieces provide comprehensive exhibits.

The collection of more than 15,000 objects includes large groups of pottery and textiles from Pueblo cultures, archaeological materials from Central and South America and ceremonial regalia from tribes living in the Amazon rainforest.

History lessons

The story of native peoples is important in Oklahoma both historically and today. One of the nation’s largest tribes, the Cherokee, is well-represented here and their Heritage Center in Tahlequah (918-456-6007) is an excellent place to learn more about them.

The Tas-La-Ge (jah-lah-gee) Ancient Village is a living history site depicting a Cherokee village prior to European exploration. The Adams Corner Rural Village is a reconstruction of a late 19th-century Cherokee community. Both attractions offer visitors vivid glimpses into the past, but the cornerstone of the collection has to be the Cherokee National Museum.

In a stunning exhibit developed in conjunction with the National Park Service, the story of the Cherokee people and the Trail of Tears is movingly depicted. The story begins with a grandfather–a storyteller– speaking to his granddaughter. The visitor winds through galleries showing how the Cherokees lived and moves quickly into the despair of internment and removal. In one starkly dramatic gallery, life-size figures present a family’s story from the trek.

Along one wall is a design made of 16,000 hand-made beads representing the number of Cherokee in the Old Nation at the time of removal. White beads represent survivors; black stands for those who died on the march and the red commemorate those whose fate was unknown.

Another hallmark of Oklahoma is its cowboy culture and the history of the great cattle drives. To learn more about the famous Chisholm Trail, the cowboys and the doggies they drove, visit the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan (580-252-6692, www.onthechisholmtrail.com).

The front section of the museum is conventional with mannequins, display cases and information. The real fun comes when visitors step through the turnstile into the newest area of the building.

The first thing to notice is a large exhibit featuring animals of the plains. On display are a shaggy buffalo, a longhorn steer, a coyote and a wild turkey, but wait; what’s that noise? In the high grass there’s an ominous rattle. Hidden sensors and viewer-activated switches bring features to life.
Check out the chuck wagon and a table set for hungry cowboys. The food is plain–beans, bacon and biscuits–but looks filling. Take a seat for another surprise. A cowboy’s voice comes out of nowhere, asking, “What? Beans again?”

The pièce de résistance of the museum is an unusual movie theater. Thanks to painted scenery on the sides and landscaping in front, the screen blends into the background. On the screen, viewers are treated to a vast panorama of Oklahoma prairie and hundreds of cattle being herded and moved by rugged-looking cowboys. As the deep prairie grass begins to wave and ripple, guests feel a slight breeze, which grows stronger. More special effects, like the lightning and rain, re-create life on the trail.

Calling all children

If there are children between the ages of 3 and 12 in your car, head for Seminole. The Jasmine Moran Children’s Museum (1-800-259-5437, www.jasminemoran.com) is based on the theme of an imaginary town for youngsters. In this marvelous fantasy world, a child can be a fireman sliding down a pole, a judge with gown and gavel, an emergency worker in the back of an ambulance or a pilot at the controls of a Convair. There are areas for water play, experimenting with soap bubbles, painting and an 18-foot-tall climbing maze.

The outdoor play area features a train and half-mile of track and Safety Town. Everything here is designed to delight and accommodate youngsters–even the bathrooms are outfitted with downsized fixtures.

Another fun spot for children is the Percussive Arts Museum in Lawton (580-353-1455, www.pas.org/museum). If you can strike it, plunk it or shake it, you’ll find it here. The collection, quickly becoming one of the largest in the world, features more than 700 instruments.

Favorite exhibits include exotic ensembles like the Pi Phat ensemble, a traditional orchestra of Thailand, consisting of sets of pitched gong-kettles that encircle the players; xylophone-type instruments that carry the main melodic line; barrel drums and tiny cymbals.

One truly out-of-this-world instrument is the Musser Celestaphone. Inspired by Halley’s Comet, Claire O. Musser collected meteorites for over 40 years. With these, he built his celestaphone, a vibraphone-type instrument with a truly heavenly sound.

Most of the instruments are hands-off, but there’s a wonderful area where youngsters can bang, bong and boom to their hearts’ content.

This is a short list of what Oklahoma has to offer. Other small wonders include the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, the Thomas P. Stafford Museum in Weatherford and the Route 66 Museum in Clinton. The state also boasts some excellent major museums. On your next visit to Oklahoma, don’t just drive through–plan to stay a while.

Elaine Warner is a contributor from Edmond, Okla.

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