Mixing oil and water: Naturalizing offshore oil rigs in Gulf Coast aquariums

Journal of American Studies 46 (2012): 461–480.

This article analyzes aquarium displays depicting the ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico to see the ways in which offshore oil structures have been naturalized. It focuses on aquariums in Texas and Louisiana that use oil structures as part of their public displays of the ocean environment, as well as educational material about the offshore ecosystems. The article argues that much of the public presentation of the Gulf 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. Louisiana began the first state Rigs-to-Reefs program in 1986, shortly before the first modern aquariums installed Gulf of Mexico tanks highlighting the contribution of the oil industry to the Gulf’s ecosystem. This article argues that the aquarium displays are products of the specific social and political context of the Rigs-to-Reefs program, which encouraged the creation of hybrid schemes for the representation of marine life in the region that mixed oil and water.

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