The Smithsonian Institution’s “Hall of Petroleum” in Washington, D.C., opened in the summer of 1967 inside a museum wing devoted to the history of oilfield technology. The collection in the museum building’s west wing included cable-tool and rotary drilling rigs and many oilfield-related geology and engineering exhibits.

“Panorama of Petroleum” mural for the Smithsonian 1967 Hall of Petroleum.

“Panorama of Petroleum,” a 56-foot mural by Oklahoma artist Delbert Jackson, in 1967 welcomed visitors to a Smithsonian museum on the National Mall. It also served as a guide to oilfield exhibits.

In June 1967, a wing of exhibits — the Hall of Petroleum — opened in what was then the Museum of History and Technology not far from the Washington Monument. 

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

Thousands visited the hall’s extensive petroleum history exhibits, including the latest onshore and offshore oilfield technological advancements. Rows of old and new equipment highlighted the exhibit hall.

Smithsonian hall of transportation with oil field service truck from Oklahoma.

Oil history today has a small role in the Smithsonian’s “America on the Move” exhibit. Photos by Bruce Wells.

Located next to the National Museum of Natural History, which opened in 1910, the the Museum of History and Technology opened in 1964 and was renamed the National Museum of American History in 1980. The museum wing today features exhibits relating to transportation, but with few devoted to the history of U.S. petroleum exploration and production.

Hall of Petroleum

As visitors entered the Hall of Petroleum in June 1967, they were greeted by a 13-foot-by-56-foot mural by Tulsa, Oklahoma, artist Delbert Jackson.

Exterior of the Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

Although it once featured a “Hall of Petroleum,” today’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., does not exhibit any oil or natural gas exploration and production technologies.

Jackson (1915-1982) spent two years creating the painting that portrayed oil and natural gas exploration, production, refining, and delivery. His “Panorama of Petroleum” featured 22 Tulsa oilmen — and the artist himself.

For visitors, the mural served as a visual guide to the equipment content of the petroleum exhibits. Jackson’s artwork later ended up being stored for decades before finding a permanent home at Tulsa International Airport

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

The museum hall’s main exhibits were designed, “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,” explained Philip W. Bishop, author of the exhibit’s 1967 catalog, Petroleum.

View of Panorama of Petroleum mural at Tulsa airport.

Tulsa recovered the forgotten “Panorama of Petroleum” mural once part of many oil-related exhibits at the Smithsonian museum. In 1998, the mural was restored and installed at the Tulsa International Airport. Photo by Bruce Wells.

“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,” Bishop noted. Large exhibits placed near the mural included a rotary drilling rig.

The rig had been originally been used to drill water wells (see First Texas Oil Boom) before being adapted to drill shallow oil wells.

A   "Christmas tree" detail from Delbert Jackson mural at Tulsa airport.

Artist Delbert Jackson included Tulsa oilmen preparing to make down-hole measurements — after installing a “Christmas tree” of valves to regulate well flow.

Among the catalog’s descriptions of petroleum exploration technologies, Bishop featured an historic “horse-powered machine called the Corsicana rig.” The circa 1890s rig manufactured in Corsicana was one of the oldest surviving examples of drilling technology still used worldwide.

Technology Exhibits

“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,” Bishop continued.

Combined images of 1967 Hall of Petroleum mural seen before completed

Prior to the 1967 opening, a rare photo (at right) shows Jackson’s mural. It will be displayed in what was then the Museum of History and Technology, completed just three years earlier.

“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,” Bishop added.

This 1930s gravimeter is a rare example of exhibit from hall of petroleum

Although not on display, a 1930s “gravimeter,” was among National Museum of American History’s collection. It measured gravity anomalies associated with oil deposits.

Bishop’s extensive catalog of the Hall of Petroleum’s exhibits (now long since dispersed or in storage) included 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 showed how geophysicists locate areas for further exploration by drilling. “Here, the detailed review of the industry’s technology begins,” he explained.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

Exhibits described drilling and completion technologies; increasing production by stimulation of the well by artificial methods  (including hydraulic  fracturing — “fracking” — formations). Museum visitors learned about technologies for lifting oil to the surface; complex refining methods; natural gas and petrochemicals; and distribution of petroleum products to the consumer.

Detail of faces in the 1967 Hall of Petroleum mural, including the artist, Delbert Jackson.

Realistic scenes in Delbert Jackson’s mural were directly related to museum exhibits. The painting featured the faces of 22 leading Tulsa oilmen. Jackson included himself standing at right.

The catalog also described the transportation exhibits — including the evolution of oil tankers. One display included hand-crafted “models of tankers showing growth of the typical unit from the 1890s to the present.”

Wildcats and Dry Holes

A section call “Exploring by Drilling” showed how “a well in an area not previously drilled for oil or known to have produced it is called a ‘wildcat.’ The museum’s original catalog continued:

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.

The Hall of Petroleum’s Delbert Jackson mural, Bishop also proclaimed, “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 closed, the mural was put into storage for three decades. The city of Tulsa recovered “Panorama of Petroleum,” thanks to the Gilcrease Museum. In 1998, the artwork was restored and installed inside the city’s historic airport five miles northeast of downtown.

Petroleum history is important. Support link for AOGHS.

According to Tulsa International Airport, the 10 companies in 1966 that sponsored painting and donation of the mural to the Smithsonian Institution were Litton Industries, Dowell Division of Dow Chemical Co., Helmerich & Payne, Inc., Oilwell Division of the United States Steel, Hughes Tool Co., Flint Engineering and Construction Co., Sunray DX Oil Company, and Williams Brothers Company.

Thousands of travelers today view the Tulsa airport’s mural in route to their gates. Those who have time to read the accompanying plaque see a numbered “who’s who” of the Oklahoma oilmen identified in the mural. For those who look closely, Jackson the artist can be found in the background — pictured as an oilfield roughneck.

Another once-neglected mural, “Oil Fields of Graham” painted in 1939 by Alexandre Hogue, has been preserved in the historic U.S. Postal Service building in Graham, Texas, 

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History today features a hall devoted to transportation in American history (see America on the Move).


Recommended Reading: Official Guide to the Smithsonian (2016); Tulsa Where the Streets Were Paved With Gold – Images of America (2000); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009).Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) preserves U.S. petroleum history. Please become an AOGHS annual supporter and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact © 2024 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Smithsonian’s Hall of Petroleum.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: June 27, 2024. Original Published Date: June 1, 2008.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This