Excursions: Oklahoma Adventure

In late October I found myself in Oklahoma in earnest for the first time in order to give a paper at the Mountain-Plains Museum Association annual conference. While I had driven through part of the state during my move to Roswell back in 2013, I didn't stop to look at anything beyond what I could see on the highway. For this trip then, I was determined to make up for my lack of exploration and delve into some of the state's renowned museums.

My first stop was in Tulsa at the Gilcrease Museum. I knew this collection had a good western art collection, but in actuality it's got a fantastic all-around American art collection, with works by Thomas Sully, John Singleton Copley, and Thomas Eakin's first full-length portrait.

Of course there are plenty of works by artists associated with the American West, including Thomas Moran, Charles Russell, and Frederic Remington. The bronzes in particular were spectacular, showcasing Remington's technical virtuosity with clay sculpting (and physics, the center of gravity on these pieces are extraordinarily delicate).

The Gilcrease is also home to some wonderful gardens, as I discovered after venturing out of the museum.
From Tulsa it was on to Oklahoma City, where the conference proper would be taking place. The day before the sessions began in earnest, I decided to tackle one of OKC's most revered institutions: The Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
End of the Trail by James Earle Fraser (1876-1953), the most iconic representation of the incredibly persistent Vanishing Race myth. This enormous sculpture is the first thing you see when you enter the museum.
This museum is enormous, and I very quickly realized I hadn't budgeted enough time for it. It took me two hours to walk through this place, and I barely read any of the labels. I wandered from room to room, exploring multiple perspectives of the West, from the types of people who actually lived there in the 19th century, to romanticized cinematic projections of the 20th century. One temporary exhibit that I particularly liked looked at feathered headdresses.

The Western Heritage Museum is also home to some beautiful gardens, which I especially liked exploring. There are plenty of sculptures scattered among the trees and the creek, as well as tuneful birds nesting in the area, making for a pleasing aesthetic experience.

Under normal circumstances I would have just spent the entire day here, but there was one other place I really wanted to check out before the conference started: the Museum of Osteology. I've known about this place since at least 2012, and while it has nothing to do with my current work as an art museum curator, the prospect of seeing a museum chock-full of nothing but skeletons was too good to resist. It's an old-school kind of museum, with each cabinet stuffed to the gills with specimens, but it was a lot of fun to wander through. I also had brought my sketchbook with me, and spent a great deal of time taking down sketches for future reference.  

Anyone want a mug with a humpback whale skeleton on it?

Starting off with a bang: humpback whale and elephant. Note all the specimens in the cases in the background.
The view from the second floor
The opening reception for the conference was held at the Oklahoma History Center. Spread out over three spacious floors, this museum explores the colorful and complex history of Oklahoma through a variety of interactive exhibits. My favorite (and apparently everybody's, according to the volunteer I talked to) was the recreation of a midcentury kitchen.

A few hours before my own session, I took a quick trip down to the Fred Jones Museum at the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman. I didn't get to spend nearly as much time here as I would have liked, I had a paper to give in a couple of hours, after all, but it does have an impressive art collection, with particularly strong holdings in the American Southwest region.

Overall, it was a fun and productive trip. I enjoyed having the opportunity to see so many great museums, and also got some great suggestions for my own ongoing research from my colleagues within the museum field. Not to mention all the great skeleton drawings for future ceramics and prints:

Of course, there are a lot of places I didn't get to see either, so I definitely need to go back at some point when I'm not tied down to a conference schedule. If you ever get the chance, then, I highly recommend that you take a jaunt out to Tulsa and Oklahoma City. They've got some great places to visit.