Smithsonian’s “Hall of Petroleum”
With a collection of more than three million artifacts, the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., today exhibits surprisingly few relating to the U.S. petroleum industry. It wasn’t always so.
In June 1967, an entire wing of exhibits – the “Hall of Petroleum” – opened at the Smithsonian Institution’s American history museum on the national mall. It including cable-tool and rotary drilling rigs, pump jacks and other oilfield exhibits.
Thousands of visitors viewed the petroleum history – including examples of exploration and production technological advancements.
Late 1960s visitors to the exhibit hall – in what became part of the National Museum of American History in 1980 – were greeted by a giant 13-foot-by-56-foot mural painted by Delbert Jackson (1915-1982), a renowned Tulsa artist.
Jackson spent two years creating the painting, which portrays oil exploration, production, refining, and delivery. His “Panorama of Petroleum” featured the faces of 22 Tulsa oilmen (each individual can be identified; a 23rd is the artist himself).
For museum visitors, the mural served as a guide to the equipment contents of the museum’s petroleum exhibits. Today the artwork is on permanent display at Tulsa International Airport.
The hall’s main exhibits were prepared with “to give the public some conception of the involved nature of the processes of finding and producing oil and its preparation for consumption – whether by automobiles, airplanes, power stations, household furnaces, or the petrochemical industry,” explains Philip W. Bishop, author of the exhibit’s catalogue, Petroleum.
“If the hall can increase the public’s knowledge of and respect for the technical skill and know-how of those who make this energy available, it will have served its purpose,” he adds.
Rare Rotary Rig and Anticline Theory
Noting that in front of the mural stands a rotary drilling rig used originally to drill water wells in Texas and, later, to drill shallow oil wells, Bishop describes the exhibit’s “horse-powered machine called the Corsicana rig” – believed to be one of the oldest surviving examples of a rotary rig.
“Adjacent to the introductory mural is a large relief map of the United States, which shows the statistical growth of the industry, including crude oil and natural gas production and proved reserves,” he continues.
“A comparison of the columns on the map provides dramatic evidence of the advancement of oil-finding technology especially after the doldrums of the 1920s when scientists – including those of the Smithsonian Institution – were confidently, if despondently, forecasting the exhaustion of America’s oil resources within a few year,” he adds.
Bishop’s extensive catalogue of the Petroleum Hall’s exhibits – now long since dispersed or in storage – includes the evolution of geological knowledge in the early oil regions and the development of anticline theory, first advanced in 1860 but not immediately accepted.
Another section on exploring for oil shows how geophysicists locate areas for further exploration by drilling. “Here, the detailed review of the industry’s technology begins,” he adds.
Exhibits describe drilling and completion technologies; increasing production by stimulation of the well by artificial means; lifting oil to the surface; refining methods; natural gas and petrochemicals; distribution of petroleum products to the consumer; and transportation – including the evolution of oil tankers “using models of tankers showing growth of the typical unit from the 1890s to the present.”
Wildcat Wells and Dry Holes
A section call “Exploring by Drilling” reveals how “a well in an area not previously drilled for oil or known to have produced it is called a ‘wildcat.’ The catalogue continues:
The place where drilling is started is usually determined by surveys which reveal likely geologic deviations.
However convincing this exploratory data, the drilling of a wildcat is full of risk. In 1966, for example, 90 percent of such wells drilled in the United States proved to be dry holes — a sufficient indication of the difficulties in discovering the formation which does contain oil.
Noting an alternative entrance to the hall’s Delbert Jackson mural, Bishop says it “brings one to a detailed scale model of a modern rotary-drilling rig and to a brief history of the development of the gasoline dispensing pump, culminating in a modern blending pump.”
When the Hall of Petroleum exhibit closes, the mural is put into storage for three decades. The city of Tulsa will recover “Panorama of Petroleum,” thanks to its Gilcrease Museum, and in 1998 the mural is restored and installed at the Tulsa International Airport.
Today, thousands of travelers view the painting en route to their gates. Plaques provide a numbered “who’s who” of the Oklahoma oilmen in the mural. For airport visitors who look closely, Jackson can be found in the background – pictured as a roughneck.
ExxonMobil is among the sponsors of a current Smithsonian exhibit about transportation in American history. See America on the Move.
Read about a recent oilfield mural, the 48-foot “Oil and Guts” by California artist Barbara Fritsche, at Books & Artists.
Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society with a donation.