The Spring 2016 cohort of environmental studies 202 (culture, energy, and environment) visited the 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.
By Will Deaderick
Engraved in huge glass panels positioned at the entrance to the Wiess Energy Hall are the names of the generous donors who made the exhibit possible. These donors, unsurprisingly, are almost exclusively oil and gas corporations: Saudi Aramco, ConocoPhillips, ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil… the list goes on. The influence these donors clearly have upon the exhibits inside the Hall is unmistakable. The Hall is never explicitly political, but the bits and pieces of science that it chooses to accentuate send the clear message that oil is sleek, modern, and sexy.
I appreciate that the Wiess Energy Hall aims to provide visitors with an accurate scientific perspective on energy. Beginning with the “Big Bang” and the biomass that was heated and pressurized to create modern fossil fuels, the Hall indeeds explores the history of energy. However, this seems more of a formality than anything, for rather then proceeding to delve into any of the topics touched on in the first few chapters of Alfred Crosby’s history of energy use, for example, the Hall briefly presents plate tectonics before immediately jumping into its main attraction of oil. With lifelike fracking exhibits, menacing drill heads, and even a “Geovator” attraction that takes visitors down into a model oil well, the Energy Hall hits on all of the loud and exciting aspects of extracting oil from the ground.
However, explanations of drilling and fracking are written up on glass walls to sound perfectly safe and risk-free. Never in the Hall is it mentioned that oil spills can destroy entire ecosystems, that burning fossil fuels contributes to anthropogenic climate change, or that fracking commonly contaminates groundwater supplies with unsafe chemicals.
What’s more, the obligatory “alternative energy sources” exhibit is saved for the end and is only given a few short steps worth of viewing time as the visitor tiredly emerges back into the bright light of the museum lobby. Although this brief section of the Energy Hall features a model nuclear fission reactor and a panel combining wind, solar, hydropower, etc., I believe it is simply too little, too late. Renewable energy, almost by definition, is the energy of our species’ future. Rather than exciting visitors about existing technology that is outdated and unsustainable, the Hall should focus on opening visitors’ eyes to the promising research being done into ways of collecting and storing energy that don’t actively give our planet a deadline for inhabitability.
The choice to focus the Wiess Energy Hall primarily on the science of oil and gas collection is no doubt a result of the economic agendas of its donors. This perfectly parallels our modern political landscape in which the public sector is constantly being influenced by, and ultimately inextricably linked to, the desires of the most powerful players in the private sector. Regardless, the Hall does an excellent job of presenting scientific facts in a flashy, approachable way that educates visitors about our most common current energy technology. Though I personally believe the Hall could stand to shift its bias increasingly away from the present and towards the future, it makes for an exciting addition to the Museum of Natural Science nonetheless.