Click here to see photos of Black Mesa under construction
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Oklahoma boasts the fourth highest biodiversity of any of the 50 United States. The Sam Noble Museum’s Hall of Natural Wonders features dioramas that showcase several of the unique habitats that make this diversity possible. On Saturday, March 5, the museum unveils the newest addition to these permanent exhibits: a 2,000-square-foot diorama showcasing Black Mesa in far northwestern Oklahoma. The exhibit is generously funded by the Whitten-Newman Foundation. The opening day of the new exhibit will be celebrated with free admission to the public, also provided by the Whitten-Newman Foundation.
At 4,973 feet, Black Mesa is Oklahoma’s highest, driest and coolest spot. It is also the state’s westernmost point, and features plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the state. The landscape itself is dramatic. Arid grasslands, rocky buttes and mesas give this part of the state the flavor of the Old West. The climate can be harsh. Water is scarce, and temperatures can be extreme. The plants and animals in this unforgiving landscape are hardy and adapted to make the most of the available food, water and shelter.
“Black Mesa is a well known, dramatic area, with spectacular scenery,” said Peter Tirrell, the museum’s associate director. “This is the first diorama to be installed in the Hall of Natural Wonders that deals with ecosystems in the western part of the state, and it is the most immersive exhibit we have built so far.”
The exhibit spills over the boundaries of the diorama’s enclosed display area to include a naturalistic walkway where museum visitors pass under large cottonwood trees through a short-grass prairie habitat alongside a stream. The diorama features dozens of mounted and cast animals, including mule deer, pronghorn antelope, a mountain lion, prairie dogs, jackrabbits and a badger, along with many species of birds, including eagles and vultures. Visitors will get an underground look at a prairie dog burrow, view a cross-section of a seasonal lake, and learn about the fascinating interactions between animals in this uncompromising landscape.
Black Mesa is also one of the most interactive of the museum’s exhibits. Touch screen computers throughout allow visitors to test their knowledge, answer questions and dig deeper for more information. The computer interactives include recordings of bird songs and frog calls, photos of animals and habitats, maps of where species occur and more.
This is only a small sampling of some of the amazing stories visitors will discover in the new Black Mesa exhibit. Other exhibits in the Sam Noble Museum’s Hall of Natural Wonders include the mixed grass prairie, the oak-hickory forest, a walk-through limestone cave, and an Ozark mountain stream. Mares noted, “When I originally envisioned the gallery I saw a single place where people could instantly experience the wealth of nature in Oklahoma and with the completion of the Black Mesa exhibit, the vision is complete. As one enters the gallery one can see the lush eastern forests, the dramatic mid-grass prairie of the Wichita Mountains, and the arid plains of western Oklahoma. We are very proud of this gallery.”
The Whitten-Newman Foundation is a private family foundation established by Reggie Whitten, his wife Rachelle Whitten, and brother-in-law Robert Newman in 2007, partly as a way of memorializing the Whitten’s son, Brandon, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2002.
The Whitten-Newman Foundation has been a major supporter of the museum since the fall of 2007, when the organization made a gift of $950,000 to create the Whitten-Newman Foundation’s ExplorOlogy Program. Now in its fourth year, this program provides hands-on science experiences for students and educators across the state of Oklahoma through field programs for middle and high school students, teacher workshops, outreach programs and a combined teacher/student experience during Spring Break.
“Reggie Whitten and the Whitten-Newman Foundation are some of the greatest supporters of the Sam Noble Museum,” said Mares. “Because of their generosity and willingness to give back to Oklahoma and to the University of Oklahoma, our museum’s exhibits and programs have been immensely improved. We are a better museum because of their support and we will continue to serve Oklahomans far into the future.”
The Black Mesa exhibit is made possible by the Whitten-Newman Foundation.