Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum | What to Know Before You Visit

In the heart of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma stands one of the most moving memorials you may ever visit. 

The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum is a profound and emotional place that takes you back to one of the most heartbreaking chapters in American history. 

Before visiting the Oklahoma City Memorial and its museum, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of the events that unfolded on April 19, 1995, and the lasting impact they’ve had on the Oklahoma City community and the nation at large. 

This guide to the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum details what to know before visiting this somber place, offering insights into the memorial’s significance, its powerful exhibits, and the stories that resonate within its walls. 

Our experience visiting the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum

little girl standing by a chair at the oklahoma city national memorial
We have visited the Oklahoma City Memorial multiple times. It is the number one place in OKC we take visitors.

As residents of Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma City Memorial is one of the first places we take guests when they come to visit for the first time. 

It is truly one of the best places to visit in Oklahoma and an important historical landmark in our state.  

Located in Downtown Oklahoma City, not far from Bricktown, the city’s tourism and entertainment district, the OKC bombing memorial is a serene and beautiful place to visit. But once you understand the history of the ground you are standing on, a visit to the Oklahoma City Memorial is also a solemn and heavy experience. 

Although it isn’t a cheerful place, visiting the Oklahoma City bombing memorial is one of the best things to do in OKC with kids, particularly older children, as it is crucial to understand historical events and how they shaped communities – as devastating as those events might be.

History of the OKC Bombing

The OKC Memorial and Museum is dedicated to the victims and survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing that occurred on April 19, 1995. A tragic day that Oklahoma has become known for.

This somber chapter in American history marks one of the deadliest acts of domestic terrorism our country has ever experienced. 

At 9:02 am that fateful day, a massive explosion tore apart the entire front half of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, leaving the building in a pile of rubble. The bombing, orchestrated by a political extremist named Timothy McVeigh, killed 168 people, including 19 children, and left over 500 others injured. 

McVeigh’s act of violence was motivated by anti-government sentiments. The Oklahoma City bombing not only reshaped the physical landscape of the city but also left an indelible mark on people across the United States – including me – just a grade schooler at the time of the bombing. 

About The Oklahoma City National Memorial 

The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum honors the lives lost and stands as a testament to the strength of the survivors and first responders. If you are planning a visit to the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum, here’s what you can expect to see on your visit. 

Weeping Jesus Statue

a statue of jesus weeping across from the oklahoma city memorial
While not technically part of the Oklahoma City Memorial, the statue of Jesus weeping across the street is worth stopping to see.

If you park on the west side of the memorial, on Harvey Avenue and NW 5th Street, you’ll instantly notice a compelling statue across from the memorial. The statue, titled Jesus Wept, was erected by the Saint Joseph Catholic Church, and stands on the site where the church’s parish house sat before it was damaged in the bombing, resulting in its demolition. 

The towering statue depicts Jesus weeping with his hand over his face and his back turned away from the memorial. For me, the statue seems to convey a sense of agonizing pain that makes you want to turn your eyes and weep. It is a feeling that many in Oklahoma City felt that day and can still easily relate. 

Although this statue is not technically part of the memorial, its placement directly across from it adds to the experience and prepares you for what you are about to see in the museum and memorial.

Gates of Time

the gate to the OKC Bomb Memorial that reads 9:01
The Gates of Time at the Oklahoma City encompass the minute in time that the OKC bombing occurred.

Walking into the Oklahoma City Memorial, you pass beneath one of two gates or large archways. 

The first gate, marking the entrance to the memorial is time stamped 9:01 – representing the last minute of peace before the bomb went off and the city was forever changed. On the opposite side of the memorial, a second bronze gate reads the timestamp 9:03 – the minute after the blast. 

The symbolism of how life can change so tragically in just one minute is a powerful feeling that instantly grabs you at your emotional core the moment you walk through the gates and gaze out over the memorial.

Reflection Pool

the reflection pool at the okc memorial at sunset
The reflection pool at the OKC Memorial runs through what was once the street in front of the federal building.

Between the two towering gates, a shallow reflection pool runs east to west, down the center of what was once Fifth Street, which ran in front of the federal building. 

The black granite reflection pool is calming and peaceful to look at. The calm water allows those who look down into the water to see a reflection of themselves looking back. Seeing reflection is supposed to convey a feeling of another person changed by what happened here so many years ago. 

Field of Empty Chairs

field of empty chairs at the Oklahoma City Bomb Memorial
The field of empty chairs represents the victims who perished in the OKC Bombing.

Perhaps one of the most gripping visuals within the outdoor memorial is the Field of Empty Chairs. Lining one side of the Reflection Pool, 168 bronze and glass chairs represent the 168 victims who perished as a result of the bombing. 

The chairs are arranged in nine rows, representing the nine floors of the Murrah building. The names of each victim are etched on one of the chairs, and each chair is positioned in the row that represents the floor on which that person worked or would have been on April 19, 1995.

There are also 19 smaller chairs that represent the 19 children who died in the daycare center that was housed on the second floor of the building. 

On the west side of the field, there is a column of 5 chairs that represent the people who died near or outside the building.

One the east end of the Field of Empty Chairs, pause to notice the only remaining portion of the Murrah Building that is still standing. Known as the Survivors’ Wall, it is inscribed with the names of hundreds of people who were in or near the building that day and survived the bombing.

Survivor Tree

looking up at the survivor tree
The Survivor Tree represents the strength of the survivors of the OKC Bombing.

On the north side of the reflection pool, you’ll notice a large elm tree, now surrounded by a sitting area. 

The tree, although heavily damaged in the bombing, lived against the odds. The tree, now known as the Survivor Tree, symbolizes the strength and resilience of the survivors.  It has continued to thrive despite droughts, ice storms, and thunderstorms that frequently plague Oklahoma. 

Spray Painted Message

 We search for the truth. We seek justice. The courts require it. The victims cry for it. And God demands it! spray painted on a wall at the OKC Memorial
This message spray painted on the wall by the Survivor Tree at the Oklahoma City National Memorial has become a part of the memorial experience.

You’ll find another non-intentional part of the memorial spray painted on the wall of the building near the Survivor Tree. The message, which was left by one of the recovery teams in 1995 reads: We search for the truth. We seek justice. The courts require it. The victims cry for it. And God demands it!

This inscription invokes the sense of anger and helplessness of the first responders as they searched through the rubble of the collapsed building. It conveys the senselessness of the tragedy and the desperation for justice after this unfathomable event in history.   

The Fence

In the days and weeks after the tragedy, a chain link fence that was set up to keep people out of the search area became a makeshift memorial to the victims, as people from the community and communities far away left tributes on the fence.

Notes of condolences, stuffed animals, keychains, and poems were attached to the fence. 

It became apparent that this tragedy didn’t just have an impact on Oklahoma City, but on the entire nation and even the world.

When the search ended, the building was demolished, and the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum were opened, a portion of the fence was put back out in front of the museum to symbolize the healing and solidarity of the nation that began to happen in the days after the devastation.

Children’s Area

little girl writing on a chalkboard on the ground in the childrens area outside the OKC Memorial Museum
The children’s area gives kids the chance to express their feelings after their visit to the memorial and museum.

In front of the entrance to the museum there is also an area with thousands of hand-painted tiles created by children from around the United States and Canada that were sent to Oklahoma City after the bombing. 

This area, known as the Children’s Area, also has chalkboards and chalk where kids are encouraged to leave their own messages and share their feelings in words or illustrations after they visit the OKC bombing memorial and museum. 

About the Memorial Museum

While the Oklahoma City National Memorial is a meaningful experience in its own right, the museum is also worth a tour if you are ever in Oklahoma City. It is one one of the most brilliantly curated museums we have ever visited. 

Hall of History

At the beginning of the tour you enter a hall of history that sets the stage for your journey through the museum. Peruse this area while you wait for your time to enter the next part of the experience. 

Morning Meeting Recording

This is where your journey back in time to April 19, 1995 begins. You enter a room, take a seat, and a recording begins to play. It is a recording of a morning meeting held by the Water Resources Board adjacent to the Murrah building. 

A few moments into the mundane meeting, you hear the blast. The recording stops. And the doors open ushering you along into the journey through that day.

The Rubble

As you make your way through different rooms in the museum, you’ll walk past display cases containing rubble from the building, office supplies, and belongings that were collected from the building. 

The different display cases contain relatable items you would likely find in your own office. The thought provoking exhibits make you think about being there yourself.  

Survivors Stories

Throughout the museum, you’ll hear firsthand accounts from survivors, first responders, community leaders, and TV reporters and anchors who were working that day and rushed to cover the story as it unfolded. 

There are so many compelling stories that make you pause and listen to the unimaginable experiences that hundreds of people went through that morning in spring 1995. 

Victim Memorials

While the survivor stories are quite touching, a portion of the museum is absolutely heartbreaking when you get to the victim memorials. Accompanying a photo of each victim killed that day, a personal item that represents who they were and a quote about them was provided by family, friends, or colleagues of the victims. 

Seeing the young faces of the 19 children who perished in this senseless act, as well as the adults who died on a day where they were just going about their ordinary lives, is heart wrenching.

The Timothy McVeigh Capture and Trial

While the museum focuses mainly on the survivors and victims, in order to understand the events that unfolded that day, you also have to learn about the person who caused this tragedy. A portion of the museum walks you through the radicalization, capture, and trial of Timothy McVeigh. 

Memorial Overlook

Toward the end of the museum, there is a large window overlooking the Oklahoma City National Memorial. Pause for a moment and look out at the view of the memorial and envision the street and building that once stood in that very spot. 

Tips for visiting the OKC Memorial and Museum

the field of empty chairs illuminated at night
Whether you visit during the day or night, take your time to appreciate the many components and symbolism at the Oklahoma City Memorial. | Photo by Ken Shelton from Pixabay

If you are planning a visit to Oklahoma City and want to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial – here are a few tips to make the most of your experience. 

Tour the Museum Before the Memorial

Do not skip the museum. It is phenomenal and extremely moving. I would also recommend touring the museum first to gain a better understanding of the attack on the Murrah building before walking through the memorial.

It will make the memorial that much more powerful with the additional knowledge gained during your museum visit. 

Ask Questions

looking up at the gates of time
If you have questions about any portion of the memorial, be sure to ask questions of the park rangers. | Photo by Karsten Winegeart from Unsplash

The Oklahoma City National Memorial is part of the National Park Service. Park Rangers are available at the memorial to answer questions during your visit.

I highly recommend asking them any questions you might have during your visit. The rangers often provide additional insight or point out things about the memorial that you may otherwise miss. 

Take Your Time

Plan to spend at least 3 hours at the memorial and museum. The museum itself will take you about an hour and a half to tour. You could spend even longer there if you like to read and watch every story. 

Don’t rush through your visit and give yourself plenty of time in your Oklahoma City itinerary to explore the memorial and museum.

Final and personal thoughts on the Oklahoma City Memorial, Museum, and the OKC Bombing

looking through one gate at the other gate and reflection pool at the Oklahoma City Memorial
The Oklahoma City Memorial is a moving place dedicated to those who were killed and those who survived the worst day in the city’s history.

That awful day in 1995, 168 people were killed. Thousands of people lost someone they loved. A community, a nation, and me – a seventh grade girl – were forever changed. Each year, on the anniversary of the bombing, I mourn along with so many in my community of Oklahoma City.

My perspective of the world changed that day. It will forever be etched into my mind. I remember vividly hearing about the bombing.

It was the first time I realized that evil existed in the world.

My innocent mind couldn’t understand why this happened. I couldn’t understand why someone would want to harm – to kill – complete strangers. I look back at the Oklahoma City bombing and how it changed my perspective of the world. From that moment on the word “terrorism” was part of my vocabulary.

Sadly, terrorism has become an all too familiar word these days. Today’s children are forced to come to the same realization that I did much earlier than the seventh grade. Our children are growing up in a world where they not only have to be cautious when they cross the street, but when they go to airports, tourist sites, public places, schools, and basically anywhere with crowds. 

I so badly wish the world would have learned, grown, and become a better place after April 19, 1995. 

Nowadays, children in many parts of the United States don’t even learn about the OKC bombing. Other terrorist acts, such as 9/11, have overshadowed this tragedy. That’s why I think it is important for anyone visiting Oklahoma City to visit the memorial and tour the museum – to preserve the memory of this tragic event for future generations. To learn or to remember. 

“We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.” – the words inscribed on the Oklahoma City National Memorial

Do you have a question or comment about the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum? We’d love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts in the comments below. 

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This guide to visiting the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum was first written in April 2016 but was most recently updated in November 2023 for accuracy and current museum information.

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6 comments on “Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum | What to Know Before You Visit”

Like you, I can distinctly remember hearing about the Oklahoma City bombing. I was a freshman in college and had turned on the TV after class in my dorm room to see the devastation. I have not been to Oklahoma City yet, but plan to see the memorial there one day. My heart still goes out to the victims and their families. We shall never forget.

My first visit to Oklahoma my good friend took me to the memorial. It was so beautiful yet I could feel the presence of so many lost souls there. I simply sat staring at the memorial with tears running down my face. I still can’t walk by it without feeling a chill and choking up with tears.

I was 6 years old when this happened and I’m not 100% sure if I remember seeing it on the news at the time, or if I saw those shocking images on tv a bit later. You know how sometimes memories can get a bit muddled? Either way, I remember hearing about children dying in the bombing when I was young and feeling so, so sad about it. The memorial looks very moving, I’ll have to visit one day.

Thanks for sharing your story! What’s sad is that there have been so many other attacks, that children/teens don’t even learn about this one in school. I took my niece to the memorial and museum when she was a senior in high school because she had never even heard of the OKC bombing. If you’re ever passing through this part of Middle America, you should definitely make a point to stop.

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