Wherever you land in the oil drilling debate — whether you think we’re pillaging the planet or simply tapping a God-given resource — there’s a new exhibit at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum (113 Harbor Wy., Ste. 190) that’s sure to teach you something new about the “other side.” You’ll learn not only how insidiously dangerous the sticky stuff can be but also how valuable it is as a binding force of economy and culture in our region.
The History of Oil in the Santa Barbara Channel, which opens with a free wine and cheese reception 5:30-7 p.m. on Thursday, September 20, was many years in the making. Well aware of the emotion and controversy the subject often generates, museum deputy director Emily Falke and exhibit designer Debi van Zyl were careful to cull interviews, documents, and artifacts from all sorts of perspectives. They talked to historians, geologists, and drillers to compile an exhibit that’s engaging and uncompromising.
“Our job is to take the very complex information we gather and display it in an accessible way — without being biased,” said Falke. Van Zyl expects the opening to generate buzz, and maybe even some criticism, but that’s the nature of the beast, she said. “Oil is a major part of Santa Barbara’s identity, for better or for worse,” said Van Zyl.
The exhibit begins with a look at how the Chumash used asphaltum, beach tar from natural seeps, to seal their water baskets and oceangoing tomols. They coated sewing strings and fishing spears with it, and women used wads to weigh down the bottoms of their plant-fiber skirts. Nearby, next to a brightly illustrated cross-section of Santa Barbara Channel rock layers, visitors can read about how fossil fuels are formed and why the Monterey Formation is a honey hole for so much oil.
Jumping forward, the exhibit features the boom times of the turn of the 20th century, when enterprising petroleum inspectors struck black gold in Summerland and started constructing hundreds of spindly derricks along the shoreline. There’s a grainy black-and-white photograph of the Alcatraz Asphalt Company, a deep-shaft mining operation sited near the present-day location of UCSB that, in its heyday in the 1890s, pumped 60 tons of asphaltum every 24 hours. Hand-colored postcards illustrate how oil drove commerce and tourism to the South Coast, and a section devoted to the conscious beautification of regional filling stations includes a famous quote from preservationist Pearl Chase: “Good style is good business.”
Upstairs, visitors are hit with a one-two punch of the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill and the more recent 2015 Refugio Oil Spill. In addition to the expected imagery of marine life covered in crude, as well as an overview of the legislation each disaster spawned, the exhibit offers a deep look at the area’s spill responders and the methods they used to keep the ocean clean. On the opposite wall are pro and con arguments for the Rigs-to-Reefs program, the practice of converting decommissioned oil platforms into artificial reefs. With the recent decision to shut down Platform Holly, the debate is as timely as ever.
There’s a lot more, too: like how the world’s commercial diving industry was born out of Santa Barbara’s deepwater drilling, who were the pioneers of area aquaculture, and why the Japanese shelling of the Ellwood Oil Field during WWII led to America imprisoning an entire population of its own citizenry. Next to a glass case containing handwritten letters and official decrees is the shrapnel-riddled tin door of the Goleta shed struck by Japanese artillery.
Oil in Santa Barbara has had so many ripple effects, said Falke, and the exhibit is meant to showcase that fact without judgement. “I really do feel like we’re presenting both sides,” she said, “and we hope it helps people ask questions they might not normally ask.”