This year’s environmental studies 202 (culture, energy, and environment) students visited Wiess Energy Hall at the Houston Museum of Natural Science to learn about the public image of energy in Houston. Check back for more student perspectives on the exhibit.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science is home to the Wiess Energy Hall, a maze of interactivity, facts, and creative display. The hall, more accurately the Wiess ‘Oil’ Hall, begins just past the museum’s enormous Foucault pendulum. Visitors are greeted by myriad of lit up maps and images of organisms of the world’s past, as well as a brilliant list of sponsors, including Saudi Aramco, BP, Conocco Phillips, and Exxon, just to name a few. Visitors are then encouraged to watch a movie, geared towards children, and head into the geological element of the exhibit. While I was approaching the many touch screen options in the geology portion, a group of kids ran by me, one screaming, “I can’t believe this is so fun!”. The geology hall presents an enormous amount of information about the types of fossil fuel deposits detected by geologists. Great information, but how many visitors have really watched all the videos about Salt Domes and Anticlines and Synclines? Just a thought. As I continue through the exhibit I can’t help but notice that all of the material is geared towards engaging the visitors in the mystery of oil: an idea not so far off the mark of the actual issues of the oil industry of now. Each exhibit describes tools and analysis in terms of how it will “help in our search” for fossil fuels.
As visitors weave themselves into the drilling portion of the exhibit, they are confronted with continuous banging coming from a model of a submerged drill device which urges the audience past all of the drilling details into the next section, which once again continues the well-done interactive mystery of the exhibit. Electronic games of question where one can pull a lever for a chance to win oil deposits, or try to steer a drill into the ground help to continue the theme of oil as a puzzle meant to be solved. These games are only the prequel to a main attraction in the exhibit, The Geovator, which once again movie-fys the facts of oil for guests. Museum goers then travel past a gorgeous, Instagram worthy electric display of the refining process of oil, which depicts a much prettier picture of refinement than reality would. The hall has yet another animated movie about (you guessed it) solving a mystery, in this case the mystery of an alien who has taken a town’s energy sources.
The last room of the hall talks only of renewable energy sources, leaving the oil descriptions behind. Touch screens entice guests to learn about fission, fusion, biomass energy, and hydrogen fuel cells. This last room also features a neat Tokamak model to follow the description of fusion. I couldn’t help but notice an older group of students in this room getting quite a different experience from the elementary kids, who simply ran around touching screens, pulling levers, and being sucked in by the secrets of oil. An old tour guide was telling them the story of one of his friends who was a nuclear physicist. The friend spent his entire life trying to achieve fusion with no success. The tour guide urged the older children to focus their attention on the sources of energy in the final room of the exhibit, mentioning how oil will only become harder to find and extract in the future. The words of this tour guide touched on a main complaint of the hall. For all the facts and interactive features, sustainability issues surrounding the process are not significantly touched on, and the glowing possibilities of energy are never followed by sober explanations of current environmental patterns. While the hall presents the mysteries of finding and extracting oil, nowhere does it reveal the secrets behind the politics, predictability, and logistics of the industry on which we as a society are so dependent. The mysteries of the oil process are highly emphasized while the important mysteries of renewable energy and peak oil are seemingly ignored.
Despite this, the Wiess Energy Hall is a well orchestrated, though challengingly arranged, exhibit full of action and information on the scientific and mechanical aspects of our most used source of energy. Sure to excite young kids with the mysteries of now and provide a basis of deeper thinking for older visitors, the hall is certainly a highlight of one of Houston’s prime museums.