If the oil companies devised the lessons in college science textbooks, it would be a national scandal. But help design science exhibits in natural history museums that host countless school trips each year? Apparently, this is very good.
Take in the brand new Perot Museum of Nature and Science (yes, as in former presidential candidate H. Ross), which opened in Dallas on Saturday. A $ 10 million gift from Hunt Petroleum (now owned by Exxon) helped fund the museum’s Hunt Energy Hall, where exhibits include a larger-than-life drill bit cutting a slab of faux rock and a virtual reality experience on the subject of hydraulic fracturing known as the shale traveler. The New York Times‘Edward Rothstein got a preview:
The Hunt Hall has its virtues. Some science centers treat environmentalism with almost devout attention, eager to bring homilies home, so it’s a novelty to see it treated in this room, as in other parts of Perot, as one of the top topics. others. It is also refreshing to see some attention devoted to the technical difficulties of extracting oil and to get a sense of the science, however awkward it may be presented.
But it’s almost bizarre to see a major energy exhibition with an emphasis on hydraulic fracturing and its machinery, even though the process ultimately transforms American energy production. We also have little sense of the controversies and debates that now fuel any consideration of the energy question. Even though the room is meant to reflect Texas concerns, we learn from only a small portion of a showcase that “Texas produces more wind power than any other state in the United States.”
The Perot museum is far from being the only one to pump fossil fuels. Forth Worth’s Science and History Museum presents the XTO Energy Gallery, named after Barnett Shale’s eponymous hydraulic fracturing outfit. And in North Dakota, fracking billionaire Harold Hamm paid $ 1.8 million to help build a new wing of the North Dakota Heritage Center which will include an exhibition on – you guessed it – hydraulic fracturing.
These relationships might seem less problematic if museums actually built firewalls between their fundraising and curatorial departments. I’m not sure how things work in the Dallas and Fort Worth museums, but when I visited the North Dakota Heritage Center earlier this year, museum staff told me they asked for the advice de Hamm on the content of their energy exhibits. It is reminiscent of the kind of “science” embraced by the Creation Museum – the transmutation of opinion and faith into “fact” through the magic of pseudo-scientific dioramas.
Hamm and Perot Musuem donors T. Boone Pickens and Trevor Rees-Jones represent a new generation of philanthropic-inclined Texas oil moguls. But while their names appear on many buildings, they haven’t begun to build the kind of legacy left by, say, the Whitneys or the de Menils, families who founded world-famous art museums in New York and Houston. Funding hydraulic fracturing exhibitions can be a good PR initiative, but in the long run, the best PRs are those that lack a clear political agenda.