Sunk and Future Costs: Oil’s Place in the Museum


Hannah Tollefson

Museums are social and historical spaces. Through practices of collecting, conserving, curating, and exhibiting artefacts, museums enact collective memory and shape publics. They are also invariably entangled in the petro-cultural dynamics that shape contemporary life. Here I consider two works that intervene in the physical and imagined space of the museum.

On a spring day in April 2016, just before the height of tourist season, the Royal British Museum was closed for 4 hours for “visitor safety reasons,” what was actually an organized interruption.  At the time, the museum was hosting an exhibition entitled Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds, which promised visitors a glimpse into the ruins of “two lost cities of ancient Egypt…submerged under the sea for over a thousand years.”[1] This “blockbuster exhibition” was sponsored by the museum’s longest standing corporate partner, BP.[2] In protest, eighty-five Greenpeace activists, equipped with rock climbing and belaying gear, scaled the ionic columns at the entrance to the south wing of the quadrangle building, to which they fastened 27-foot-long banners displaying the names of cities currently being affected by flooding, storms and rising sea levels. They named this temporary exhibition Sinking Cities.

sunken cities
Elena Polisano, “Sunken Cities are not a thing of the past,” Greenpeace, last modified May 19, 2016, http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/climate/sunken-cities-are-not-thing-past-20160519.

Keep oil out of the museum

Sinking Cities makes visible the interconnectedness of oil, capital, and the institutional apparatus of the arts and humanities. The exhibit, in fetishizing the ruins of long since Sunken Cities, alienates the past from present social relations.  This historicity is interrupted as the viewer is instead forced to consider the contemporary reality and immediate danger of cities and regions worldwide which, rather than sunken, are in the present process of sinking, in large part due to the historical and ongoing exploration, drilling, extracting, and refining undertaken by BP.

Put oil in the museum

The Museum of Oil (2016) is a mixed media installation by the Territorial Agency (Ann-Sofi Rönnskog and John Palmesino), assembled in collaboration with Greenpeace.[3]  The piece comprises a collection of data, information, and objects, visualized through topographical maps mounted on aluminum and smaller video screens narrating the artists’ position that “we must keep oil in the ground.”

territorial agency
Territorial Agency, “Museum of Oil,” Vimeo, last modified October 16, 2017,  https://vimeo.com/187662825.

The Museum of Oil’s topographical panels convey a tension between the aerial, atmospheric perspective—which is central to the planning, design, and shaping of territories through human intervention—and the geological transformation of these topographies, resulting from carbon extraction. The panels are large in scale and mounted at a 60-degree slope, projecting into the space of the viewer and animating the territories they map with a sense of vitality and motion. The organic, geological contours intertwine with the infrastructures of industrial oil, communicating both that these entangled landscapes exist by design, and that their momentum and force seem nonetheless beyond our control. Humans are at once geological agents, as well as subject to the earth’s geophysical forces.[4]

The Museum of Oil stages a seemingly impossible future, beyond an oil-based economy and way of life, by curating oil as an artefact to be exhibited and viewed, rather than a commodity to be bought, sold, traded, and burned. The piece takes seriously the impasse presented by the edict, “we must keep oil in the ground.” It shifts the temporal order, historicizing oil by putting it in the museum, “to make it a thing of the past.”[5]


[1] “Sunken cities- Egypt’s lost worlds,” The British Museum, accessed March 1, 2017, http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/sunken_cities.aspx.

[2] “Your Support: Success Stories,” The British Museum, accessed March 1, 2017, http://www.britishmuseum.org/support_us/your_support/success_stories/bp.aspx.

[3] The Museum of Oil was first exhibited at the KZM in Karlsrule as part of the Reset Modernity exhibition, and currently at the Istanbul Design Biennial entitled Are We Human?

[4] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 206.

[5] The Territorial Agency, “Museum of Oil,” KZM Karlschule. Accessed April 29, 2017, http://zkm.de/en/event/2016/04/globale-territorial-agency.