Thursday, October 16, 2008

Oil City: Oil on the Brain

From Titusville, I drove down to Oil City, resisting the temptation to drive into Oil Creek State Park (maybe on the next trip) or to take a detour farther east and visit the site of the vanished boomtown of Pithole, which went from being an isolated farm to a town of 15,000 people to being virtually abandoned when the oil ran out, all in the space of a few years. Instead, I set my sights on the Venango Museum of Art, Science and Industry in Oil City, and was rewarded by as provocative an exhibit on oil as I could have wished to see.

This county-run museum is housed in the old post office, a wonderful high-ceilinged place that is, inevitably, enormously expensive to heat and cool, according to the director, Betsy Kellner. (They do have some conservation measures in place—interior storm windows and a new furnace—but inheriting the mixed blessing/burden of this carbon-age structure does seem appropriate for a museum that is trying to pose some pointed questions about our carbon dependency!)

The permanent exhibit, installed in the mid-1990s, is called “Oil: Black Gold or Black Magic?” It’s a beautifully done professonal exhibit, with some pieces of vernacular local memory woven into it in more or less successful ways—an extensively, fully-restored theater organ from Oil City’s stunning Latonia Theater, allusions to native son “Rattlesnake Pete,” an entrepreneur and healer who opened the town’s first museum in the 1890s, an area showcasing local oil brands and products, and a meeting/performance space where temporary exhibits are hung (currently, a show of photographs of remnants of the older oil industry in the area).

Kellner told me that when the museum was first established, in the 1980s and early 90s, the exhibitry had been all temporary and focused on subjects deemed to be of local interest. “But when tourists would come here, they told us they wanted the museum to be about oil,” she said--in other words, oil is Oil City's brand, and that's why tourists came to the museum. With foundation and public funding (much of it via the Oil Heritage Region), the museum had Boston-based Christopher Chadbourne & Associates design a permanent exhibit all about oil.

While there’s some local history here, the main thrust of the exhibit is to expose the taken-for-granted ways that oil has come to permeate modern societies. There’s a wonderful section on plastics (including a 15-minute “Clueless” style video called “Fuel-less”), a graphic representation of who the world’s main producers and consumers of oil are (the U.S. actually produced nine million barrels of oil a day in 2001, but consumed twenty million), and a substantial area devoted to automobility, including a comparison of urban and suburband spatial patterns and how the latter have been shaped—unhealthily—by the car. One exhibit panel asks visitors, "How much oil do you use?" (Americans use an average of three gallons a day, all told, it turns out).
While acknowledging the productive and appealing aspects of the oil economy (for example, the "Society of the Road" section admits that "The road trip has become a classic element of American culture"--so this trip of mine is classic, not merely self-indulgent!), the exhibit pulls no punches when it comes to connecting the dots between oil and its many less desirable consequences: conflict of various kinds, environmental degradation, social disconnections, and so on. I didn't spot the actual terms "peak oil" or "climate change" anywhere (even a decade ago, when the exhibit was mounted, these weren't as common currency as they are now) but the underlying ideas are very present here.

It’s a terrific exhibit, and of course my big question about it is whether visitors are using it in critical or consequential ways. Kellner reported that their school audiences often seemed enlightened or provoked, particularly by the plastics section. (One boy, insisting that compact discs couldn’t possibly be made from oil, told her, “I’m going to have my father come down here and give you a talking-to!”) But it didn’t seem that the museum had any strong linkages with any post-carbon or peak-oil or relocalization kinds of discussions that may be going on in the region.

So the question there is whether this site is, like Lowell National Historical Park and other places that raise good questions about industrial capitalist society, a place where critical museal questioning is rather carefully enclaved away from any real-life applications of the knowledge that is so compellingly on display here. The Venango Museum isn’t as beholden to either local memory or local industry as the Drake Well and many other industrial history sites, and that has given it a freedom to create an exhibit that puts local memory and industry into a much broader context. But does it follow the usual pattern of contextualizing without making actual social connections to groups and people who are working on the issues the museum represents? More research would tell… There's certainly the potential here for some productive linkages with consequential present-day efforts.

A clock outside the Oil City Library proclaims the city to be “The Hub of Oildom” and “Gushing with Pride,” but it’s clear that the loss of industry here is very much an ongoing process, and that the city is still struggling to cope. Population continues to drop, and the big Pennzoil refinery plant north of downtown was demolished about five years ago. Quaker Oil was bought by Shell in 2002, and its operations were subsequently shifted to Houston, continuing the now almost century-old pattern of northeastern American industry moving south and away. A recent edition of a booklet called "Oil City: The Town That Grew Up With Oil," sold in the Venango Museum shop, is book-ended by addenda detailing these and other losses since the booklet was first produced in 1989, leading one to wonder whether Oil City is also likely, eventually, to die with oil.

The city is actively courting artists at present (what deindustrialized town isn't courting artists?), with an active artist relocation program that includes technical assistance and financial incentives to move to Oil City. And this of course prompts my other big question about how much room there will continue to be for these things if that new economy either (a) takes off or (b) fails to take off! Where's that crystal ball when you really need it?

A footnote: A local high school band has made a recording of 1860s popular songs about the Pennsylvania oil boom, including an 1864 ditty called "Oil on the Brain" that is quoted at the beginning of the Venango Museum exhibit:

"Our stocks, like clocks, go with a spring,
Wind up, run down again:
But all our strikes are sure to cause,
'Oil on the Brain.'"

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