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Sam Noble Museum wins national honors

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Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History receives the nation’s highest honor for museums and libraries.

It’s not every day that one meets the first lady of the United States and receives a national award. But that’s exactly what happened to Michael Mares on May 8 when Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History was honored with the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. Mares, director of the museum, said his group gathered at the White House in anticipation of meeting with the first lady. “Mrs. Obama wanted to meet with us,” Mares said. “We met her two by two, director and community member. She chatted with us, very gracious, very friendly. She is a strong proponent of sciences and education.” Through the yearly nomination process, Mares said there is a slim chance any one museum will receive the medal because there are 17,500 museums and about 124,000 libraries around the country. In the end, only five museums and five libraries received the award. It is highly competitive and is the highest award for community service awarded to museums and libraries. The museum also won the Conservation/Heritage Preservation Award for Outstanding Commitment to the Preservation and Care of Collections in 2004. Mares said only four museums have won both national awards. One of the programs that put the museum on the forefront of community service is its ExplorOlogy program. Youth across Oklahoma work with scientists to gather data. Once a participant is a junior or a senior in high school, he or she may go on a trip to gather data in the field. Last year, the field trip group found a dinosaur fossil in Oklahoma. Mares said that hasn’t happened in 70 years. Ernesto Vargas was in the ExplorOlogy program. He accompanied Mares to the White House and met the first lady. Vargas participated in the program from seventh grade through 12th grade. He received a scholarship to the University of Chicago. Mares said that Oklahoma ranks poorly in science. Programs like ExplorOlogy help youth change their outlook on science. Of those in the programs, Mares said 85 percent go on to college, and many major in areas of science. Another signature program at Sam Noble Museum is the Native American Languages collection. The museum collects video recordings with scholars who record the different languages and help teach youth native language. A language fair encourages grandparents who know native languages to speak those languages with their grandchildren. The program includes up to 40 tribes, and some are beginning to come from other states to participate. StoryCorps — a nonprofit that collects stories from people around the country — will also conduct an in-depth interview with the museum leadership later this year. It will take place over a year and will then be broadcast on NPR and archived in the Library of Congress. Mares said that the first lady made a point to say the honorees should do even more than what they’ve been doing because others will be watching. Mares said the museum will continue to serve the people of Oklahoma in new and better ways. “It’s great to have national attention that will focus people on our program,” Mares said. “I have always said we were a pacesetter. Now we are officially recognized.”

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