Museum exhibits featured oil drilling, production, and transportation technologies.
The Smithsonian Institution’s “Hall of Petroleum,” which opened in the summer of 1967, devoted an entire wing to oilfield exhibits. The historic collection included cable-tool and rotary drilling rigs, pump jacks, and other oilfield exhibits.
With a collection of more than three million artifacts, the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., includes surprisingly few related to energy history or U.S. petroleum exploration and production technologies. It wasn’t always so.
In June 1967, an entire wing of exhibits — the “Hall of Petroleum” — opened at the museum on the National Mall.
Thousands of visitors viewed the petroleum history, including examples of onshore and offshore oilfield technological advancements. Rows of old and new equipment highlighted exhibit hall — in what became part of the National Museum of American History in 1980. As tourists entered the hall, they were greeted by a giant 13-foot-by-56-foot mural 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. The artwork would be stored for decades before finding a permanent home at Tulsa International Airport.
In 1967, 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,” explained Philip W. Bishop, author of the exhibit’s 1967 catalog, 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 added.
Hall of Petroleum Technology Exhibits
Large exhibits placed near the mural included a rotary drilling rig. The rig had been originally been used to drill water wells in Texas before being adapted to drill shallow oil wells.
Among the catalog’s descriptions of petroleum exploration technologies, Bishop featured an historic “horse-powered machine called the Corsicana rig.”
The circa 1890s drilling machine manufactured in Corsicana was one of the oldest surviving examples of technology still used worldwide. At the time, the booming town had its own baseball team, the Corsicana Oil Citys; in 1902, catcher Jay Justin Clarke, hit eight home runs in eight at bats – still an unbroken baseball record (see Oilfields of Dreams – Gassers, Oilers, and Drillers Baseball).
“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.
“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.
Bishop’s extensive catalog of the Hall of Petroleum’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 explained.
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 museum’s originial 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 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, and in 1998 restored and installed the artwork inside Tulsa International Airport.
Thousands of travelers today view the mural in route to their gates. Accompanying plaques provide a numbered “who’s who” of the Oklahoma oilmen in the mural. For travelers who look closely, Jackson the artist can be found in the background – pictured as a roughneck.
The Smithsonian museum today features a hall devoted to transportation in American history (see America on the Move).
Recommended Reading: Official Guide to the Smithsonian (2016). 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 preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2021 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: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/smithsonian-museums-hall-of-petroleum. Last Updated: June 27, 2021. Original Published Date: June 1, 2008.