Jan 3, 2005

Jennifer Griswold, Staff Writer, The Norman Transcript


The 20-year dream of one Cleveland County business owner to open a non-profit museum to give back to the community is slowly becoming a reality.

Opening The World of Nature, Museum of Osteology has been a long-term goal of Jay Villemarette, a 1984 graduate of Moore High School and owner of Skulls Unlimited International Inc.

Now, a little over a year away from completion, Villemarette and his staff are ready to educate the public about their passion, bones.

Villemarette started collecting skulls in his youth. He later turned his hobby of cleaning and preserving bones into a home business and expanded it from there. The company now has 12 employees and moved to its current location in northern Cleveland County, 10309 S. Sunnylane Road, about five years ago.

The business completed a year-long construction project on a new 8,000-square-foot building in December. The new building houses the administrative offices, shipping department and a gift shop, with about a 4,000-square-foot space dedicated for the future museum.

The building was constructed right beside the other building which now solely houses the production facilities of Skulls Unlimited.

The museum will consist of the large collection of natural bone specimens Villemarette has been gathering for the last 20 years. Many of the skeletons are of rare or endangered animals.

Joey Williams, director of education for Skulls Unlimited, says the last two years the company has focused on expanding its collection to include specimens from a wide range of regions.

Although it's now just an empty hull, Villemarette and Williams envision what the finished museum will be like.

Strolling through the specimens currently being stored in the facility - among them a giraffe, a hippopotamus, a rhinoceros, a two-toed sloth hanging from a stick, a 17-foot anaconda, a Komodo dragon and a Hawaiian monk seal, just to name a few - Williams outlines the plans.

A 45-foot whale skeleton will be suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the open room. The bottom floor will have oak and glass display cases containing skeletons of animals from all over the world. The second floor will be an observation deck, putting patrons eye-level with the whale and giving them a bird's eye view of the first floor, and will contain more displays.

Each display will include signs with specific information about each animal, focusing on the form and function of its skeletal system.

There also will be a fully equipped classroom in another section of the facility for hands-on activities.

"A lot of the specimens we are going to showcase are endangered species," Williams said.

Villemarette added the only large skeleton they lack is an elephant, although he noted they do have an elephant head just not the whole body.

Over in the workshop, Clark Griffith, a Skulls Unlimited employee, is working on assembling a cheetah for the museum.

Working off photos of cheetahs taken in the wild, it has taken the skilled workman a week to assemble and position the more than 250 bones of the animal's skeleton into a running position. The cleaning and bleaching process to get the bones ready for assembly took almost two months.

The staff works on projects for the museum and facility as time and money permit, between the jobs that pay the bills.

The museum, however, isn't about revenue. It's about giving back.

"This isn't about making money," said Villemarette. "It's about the education and conservation issues."

Williams echoes the point, saying their motto is "Through education comes an appreciation that will lead to conservation.

"The company is our bread and butter. It's what keeps everyone employed, but the museum is our dream."

In addition to the public museum, the facility will have a large selection of specimens available for research, acting as a centralized repository to university students and researchers, according to Williams.

Skulls Unlimited does much of its business through Internet and catalog sales which it ships to customers worldwide. Customers include educational facilities, museum, medical facilities, zoological gardens, nature enthusiasts, collectors and taxidermists.

The business receives specimens from many sources, making sure all are "ethical."

"Most of our business is not local," Williams said, "but we hope this museum will be a way we can give back to our local community."

Donations of services or monetary contributions are being accepted to speed the completion of the museum.

For more information, call 794-9300.

Jennifer Griswold