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Delight at the Museum
The Museum of the Great Plains in Lawton opened in 1961. For its 2015 renovation, the museum partnered with the Science Museum of Minnesota, which designed and fabricated the new exhibits.
Photo by JOHN JERNIGAN
The artifacts and histories showcased inside a small southwestern Oklahoma museum make a comeback after a large-scale renovation.
By Leighona Bernstein
Published January/February 2016
Lights dim in the small theater. Static voices from an April 1979 radio broadcast burst from the speakers, warning of severe weather as tornado sirens wail in the background. Lightning flashes. The cellar door rattles on its hinges. A spinning freight train derails overhead and careens across the Red River Valley. Footage of survivors and wreckage flashes across the screen. When the cellar door opens and the lights come on, the tragedy of “Terrible Tuesday” is over. Adults stagger out while children run off to play with a model bison’s plastic organs.
The Terrible Tuesday Tornado Theater is an immersive video experience designed to look like a cellar, and the Take-Apart Bison is a life-sized bison recreation with removable organs and bones. They are two of more than a dozen hands-on exhibits that came to life as part of an eleven-month, $5 million-dollar renovation of the Museum of the Great Plains in Lawton.
John Hernandez, the museum’s executive director, says the goal of the renovation was to create a place where the Great Plains could immerse visitors in the life and history of the region in a way that is more than exhibits behind glass.
“You came up and viewed this beautiful artifact and read about it, and that was it,” Hernandez says. “What if you put it in a child’s hand? If they can see what it’s like to work and be creative with it, I think you’ve sparked something.”
Settlers survived with hard work and a little creativity in Oklahoma’s early days, and a few of the museum’s exhibits show how they lived. Visitors can dress up, gather around the fire, and pretend to be cowboys at the chuck wagon camp or try their hand at typesetting in the print shop. Inside a recreation of a Wild West general store, they fill their baskets with pioneer-era canned goods. But the experience isn’t limited to the nineteenth century. In a recreation of noted saddle maker Howard Council’s Lawton shop, children use tools to emboss pieces of leather.
These hands-on interactions with exhibits are the biggest source of satisfaction for Bart McClenny, the museum’s deputy director.
“We are working with living people, but we are talking about historical events,” McClenny says. “This kind of interactive exploration lets you tie the past and the present together.”
Visitors meet the distant past near the end of the tour, where a temporary exhibit takes them out of the here and now and deposits them in a prehistoric swamp. Something moves in the shadows, and the sounds of nature are broken by the deafening roar of an animatronic Acrocanthosaurus, Oklahoma’s official dinosaur, which follows them with yellow eyes. Adults scream; children rush forward only to be confronted by a snarling Deinonychus. They jump back as the Cretaceous-era predator bites at the air.
By the time they leave, visitors have survived deadly tornadoes and dinosaur attacks, learning about the Great Plains by living its history moment by moment.
Get There: The Museum of the Great Plains is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. 601 Northwest Ferris Avenue in Lawton, (580) 581-3460 or discovermgp.org.