Origins, Oil, and the Underground:
A Look at the Story of Oil as presented by the Houston Museum of Natural Science
By Kaylee Yocum
Anthropology and Policy Studies Major
Where does oil come from? The answer to that question might seem easy: underground. But, have you ever stopped to consider the all of the various processes and events that led to the oil getting underground in the first place? According to the Wiess Energy Hall at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the underground is just the setting for a story 4. 5 billion years in the making. My project looks at the story of oil as presented in the Wiess Energy Hall in order to gain a deeper understanding of how the Houston public imagines oil.
When you first approach the exhibit, the first thing you see is a video screen. Museums often put videos as the first exhibit piece because they frame the rest of the exhibit and provide basic information to visitors. This particular video starts out with an image of the universe at the time of the Big Bang. When I first went to the exhibit, I was confused at the choice of starting the exhibit with the creation of the universe. When I went back to the exhibit, this time with two program coordinators at the Wiess Hall of Energy, I asked them about the video. They told me that all of the museum exhibits try to connect themselves to the Big Bang and that the cosmos is an important theme throughout the museum. This interested me because going along with that line of logic, any museum exhibit on any subject ever could begin with the Big Bang, as long as you went back far enough. The Big Bang is one of many foundational stories in western cultures, this one coming from the world of astrophysics and astronomy. It also frames the story of oil in the lens of “deep time,” a phrase that has cut across many disciplines form history to biology. Oil, a substance thousands of feet under the earth, is presented to the museum visitors as something so ancient that it can’t be understood on human or even geologic timescales, and instead must be understood at the same magnitude as the universe.
After our planet was created, biological life arrived and populated the seas and oceans. These tiny phytoplankton were everywhere, and when they died, their bodies littered the ocean floor. Through sedimentation and the movement of plates, these buried creatures got pushed down into the earth and liquefied, turning into oil. When we use oil, we never stop to consider that it was once living creatures. The underground as life is not a trope that is heard too often, yet the underground is where the remains of life aboveground reside. Andrew Lattas (2001) studied the cosmologies of the cargo cults in Bali (West New Britain), and learned that they believe that the work aboveground influences the underground. If they work hard, then the spirits of the dead will return aboveground and bless them with goods. This concept of the underground as space of processes and movement is helpful for understanding oil, since oil also moves from aboveground to the underground to the aboveground again, just over extremely long time scales. The exhibit dedicates most of the space to the life of oil underground, and the features of the space it occupies, signaling to the visitors that the underground is the most important part of oil’s journey from tiny plankton to gasoline and petroleum by-products.
The second part of the exhibit looks at the journey of oil as it moves aboveground. The focus is still on the underground, but the focus shifts away from geology and rock formations to the various companies that are involved in extraction, drilling, and processing. The program coordinators told me that at this point, depending on the age of the group, they move into a discussion about career possibilities with the various oil companies. The process of moving the oil out of the underground requires extensive technologies that rely on relaying information to the surface to track the drilling. In this context, the underground is seen as providing for the aboveground world in the form of the commodity that is oil. This is similar to the cosmology of the Bali (West New Britain) people who see the aboveground world as connected to the underground through the processes of capitalistic behavior.
2001 The Underground Life of Capitalism: Space, Persons, and Money in Bali (West New Britain). In Emplaced myth: space, narrative, and knowledge in Aboriginal Australia and Papua New Guinea. Pp. 161-188. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.