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Fourth-grade students from Coahoma tour the Petroleum Museum recently. Many area schools bring students to the museum. Mark Sterkel|Odessa American

Permian Basin Petroleum Museum revises its story

Workers at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum already started packing the photos, the papers of old oilmen and the other archives, taking them to the library in downtown Midland.

And beginning mid-April, many of the artifacts of the region’s booms and busts will come down too, as the museum’s long-anticipated renovation begins.

Then, for the next-18 months or so, the museum will close its East Wing as its leaders with a team of exhibit specialists re-imagine the story of Permian Basin petroleum.

That means capturing the technical advances behind the most recent boom — the combined techniques of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling — but also bringing the museum into the 21st century and trying to enhance the appeal to 9 to 14 year olds that make up the core of visitors, said Kathy Shannon, the museum’s executive director.

“It’s so important for us to get the story right and tell it well, but we also have to tell it in a fun, educational and exciting way or we lose our crowd,” Shannon said. “No one wants to sit and listen to a thesis.”

Plans call for the $18 million project to wrap up by mid-September 2015 to line up with the museum’s 40th birthday. In the meantime, museum officials plan to focus their programming on a host of other activities such as lock-ins, lectures and play-dates for children with animals.

Almost everything in the museum’s East Wing will be replaced, except for some items such as rock samples, a truck and some artifacts such as drill bits. The Permian reef exhibit will also remain, but it too will be reworked, said Clara Rice, a project manager with the Cincinnati-based exhibit design firm Jack Rouse Associates, contracted to design and oversee the renovation.

The re-imagined museum will include interactive games and videos. It will also include profiles of different oil and gas workers, with the goal of inspiring young people to pursue careers in the industry, Rice said.

Planned exhibits include a “MythCrackers” theater that will seek to debunk misconceptions about the oil and gas industry, a “PetroTrekker” lab that will show the science and technology involved in exploration and extraction of crude and an “Energy City,” fashioned as a child-sized cityscape that teaches about energy uses.

The designers wanted a layout easier for visitors to navigate: starting with exhibits showing how the resource is found and how it contributes to the region, then transitioning to the science involved in exploration and extraction and the ways petroleum is used in gasoline, plastics, chemicals and so forth.

“I think it will be much more of a logical, step-by-step progression,” Rice said.

The path through the made-over museum will also take visitors through the Permian reef, which will include a Permian Sea overhead and a rock tunnel. Designers wanted to keep it, “because it’s beautiful and it would be extremely expensive to reproduce,” Rice said.

Terry Chase, who created the reef based on fossil samples he collected from the Glass Mountains, will consult with the designers about how to rework the reef into a bigger diorama with a painted background.

“It’s one of the largest reconstructions of prehistoric marine organisms in the world, so it’s pretty unique” he said. “It actually looks just as good today as when we put it in. There’s no reason to scrap it if it can be moved.”

The reef was Chase’s first such project after graduate school in Michigan, and now he runs an exhibit design firm in Missouri. He said the Petroleum Museum, which cost about $3 million in the mid-1970s “wasn’t a very good design” and that he was happy to see it improved.

A capital campaign began in 2011 to raise the $18 million for the project, which includes donations from area foundations and oil and gas companies, such Concho Resources in Midland and majors like Occidental Petroleum and Chevron. Large independent Pioneer Natural Resources donated $750,000, and its CEO Scott Sheffield with his wife donated another $250,000.

“The story of the oil and gas industry in the Permian Basin today is a fascinating one that needs to be shared with visitors to the area,” said Sheffield in an email. “With the exciting innovation and advanced technology that have been developed over the past decade, there has never been a better time to refresh and re-focus the exhibition program at the Petroleum Museum.”

Keeping up with technology is a two-fold challenge, say designers and museum officials. First there is the new equipment that will come with the renovations, which they say is more upgradeable than the custom audio, lighting and other electronics in the existing displays.

Second there’s the oil and gas technology the museum is attempting to document — allowing producers to capture crude oil from tight rock that Shannon likes to say is “less porous than your driveway.” Those efficiencies develop rapidly as the museum prepares to begin its renovations, creating the possibility that the museum might have to add to their exhibits in the years soon after the face-lift. Rice said there will be space to do it.

And Shannon remembers a what-if. The museum began preparing for a redesign in the mid-aughts, but halted officials halted their fund-raising, first because of a hospital’s capital campaign competing for donations and later because of a recession. What if the people at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum had not waited for an oil boom?

“If we had started this,” Shannon says, “we would have missed it all!”


Contact Corey Paul on Twitter @OAcrude on Facebook at OA Corey Paul or call 432-333-7768. 

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