In the 1970s, government agencies were conducting archaeological research in Southeast Oklahoma in response to ongoing, federally-funded construction. The area lacked a proper storage facility and as a result, recovered materials were sent elsewhere for study. The removal of these objects—and the stories they told—struck a chord with local businessman Quintus Herron and his wife Mary. They worried that people were losing a chance to learn about the area’s rich cultural history.
However, the Herrons didn’t just want to build a storage facility. They wanted to provide an experience that few communities—especially rural ones—got to enjoy: they wanted to make the objects freely accessible to the public. With that in mind, in 1974 the two spearheaded an effort to build a museum in Idabel, Oklahoma. One year later, the Museum of the Red River opened its doors.
Gregory Perino, a leading expert on native American artifacts, was hired as the first director. Under Perino, the Museum focused on saving local prehistory. To that end, he led archaeological field schools, some under government contract. During this time, the Museum’s exhibits focused on recovered artifacts and the stories they told. It also displayed comparative objects, most donated by the Herrons. In the 1980s, the Museum ceased field operations and returned all recovered artifacts to the proper agencies. It also broadened its mission to include the art and archaeology of all the Americas.
In 1999, the Museum grew from 2,200 square feet to over 17,000 square feet. It added more space in 2005 for a new classroom and a cast skeleton of Acrocanthosaurus atokensis. (The original, 110-million-year-old fossil was unearthed near the Museum.) During this time, the Museum expanded it mission to include the rest of the world. In 2009, it unveiled the Mary H. Herron Community Conference Center, a space for educational and cultural activities.
In 2016, the Museum embarked on a new phase of construction. The project includes, among other things, an enlarged collection storage facility, improved exhibits spaces, and a renovated Holland and Sallie Webb Family Learning Center. Once complete, the facility will encompass 45,000 square feet.
Today, the Museum of the Red River is the largest cultural institution within a 150-mile radius. It contains over 30,000 objects from six different continents. Several hundred objects are exhibited each year on-site and in remote exhibits throughout the region. Many more are used in educational programs. As such, the Museum is an excellent opportunity for those who want to learn about a wide range of people and their cultures. It remains committed to the Herrons’ vision of an accessible museum and is open to the public free-of-charge.