NORMAN — Cultural artifacts and natural specimens from around the world and across the ages have found a new home at the University of Oklahoma.
Ancient Roman pottery, North American stone ax heads from the Middle Ages and a three-tiered Chinese picnic box from the 1700s are among the objects in the vast George C. and Cecilia McGhee Collection.
There are Byzantine crosses dating from 400 to 1100 and a Hebrew Bible with an ornate silver binding that depicts the 12 tribes of Israel and King David playing a Harp.
A turquoise-glazed Syrian bowl from the 1200s is nearly as colorful as the many rocks and minerals.
A sampling of the collection — brought to OU in February from the McGhee Foundation in Middleburg, Va. — is on display at OU’s Western History Collections in Monnet Hall.
“It started as a preview for the university community, but transitioned into a public exhibit that will be on display into early fall,” said John Lovett, director of Special Collections and curator of the Western History Collections.
It was too good not to share.
The complete donation — photographs, books, papers, art, artifacts, fossils — still is being researched and cataloged.
“We would have never expected it to drop into our lap. It caps off my 30 years here,” Lovett said.
Elsbeth Dowd, registrar at OU’s Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, said the significant donation broadens the educational experience the university can offer students and the public.
Her favorite object is a 200-pound fossil of a Crinoid, a marine animal common called the “sea lily.” The creature appears to be a flower until closer inspection.
“It’s a remarkable example of a large invertebrate fossil,” Dowd said.
A rich life
George McGhee was a millionaire oilman, career diplomat and world traveler. He graduated from OU with a degree in geology in 1933, earned a Rhodes scholarship and received a doctorate from Oxford University in 1937. During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy. He spent many years after the war working for the U.S. State Department.
Ambassador McGhee and his wife, Cecilia, collected the many items during their world travels.
“The family took great interest in the natural world, the cultural world and the history of the places they went,” Dowd said.
Many of the items were presented to the ambassador from the leaders of the countries he visited.
A sword — its scabbard adorned with gold and diamonds — is Lovett’s favorite piece. It was presented to McGhee by King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia in 1950.
A lapis lazuli — a semiprecious stone valued for its deep-blue color — is the favorite object of Jody Foote, geology librarian at OU’s Youngblood Energy Library. As a geologist, McGhee collected many rock and mineral specimens, and his wife added seashells to the mix.
Foote said the sampling of items on display speaks to McGhee’s broad interests. “He didn’t specialize in one particular thing, but he had an appreciation for everything,” she said. “You can see it here.”
Rick Luce, dean of university libraries, said the breadth of the collection — spanning so many countries and fields of study — will enhance instruction, demonstration and research.
“That’s a microcosm of what a really great library does,” Luce said.
Had the university sought to acquire them, perhaps it could have afforded to purchase one of the very special items, he said.
But a gift has brought everything —from Neo-Babylonian seals to the 200-pound fossil — to OU.
“I don’t know how to put a value on that,” Luce said.