Mixing oil and water: naturalizing offshore oil platforms in American aquariums

In Oil Culture, ed. D. Worden and R. Barrett, 267-288. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

To examine the integration of oil and ocean, this essay analyzes depictions of offshore ecosystems in American aquarium displays owned by a variety of organizations, ranging from commercial restaurant chains to nonprofit environmentally focused organizations. The essay will argue that much of the public presentation of the offshore ecosystem is tied up with the development of Rigs-to-Reefs programs, which allow the conversion of offshore oil structures into artificial reefs after they are decommissioned from active use. The Rigs-to-Reefs concept developed as part of broad strategies to improve U.S. fishing grounds and to make offshore oil production environmentally friendly, and Louisiana began the first state Rigs-to-Reefs program in 1986. In the wake of the Rigs-to-Reefs developments, aquariums located in the Gulf Coast chose to display Gulf of Mexico tanks highlighting the contribution of the oil industry to the Gulf’s ecosystem. After discussing these Gulf exhibits and their context, the essay turns to an exhibit in California, which was introduced during a protracted legislative conflict about permitting Rigs-to-Reefs in that state. By placing these displays into the specific social and political context of the Rigs-to-Reefs program, we can see why aquariums developed hybrid schemes for the representation of marine life in the region that mixed oil and water.

Read about the book on the publisher’s website.

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