Liquid Museology

Roughly at the centre of the site, where Duke’s Wood meets its neighbouring Pudding Poke Wood, stands an old portacabin structure which, for 20 years, has been home to the Duke’s Wood Oil Museum. Lovingly curated by ex-oilmen Kevin Topham and John Lukehurst, the museum holds a remarkably disparate array of memorabilia tracing 5 decades of service to the oil industry and a jumbled history of oil production at Eakring Oil Fields and Duke’s Wood itself. Set uneasily alongside this profusion of photographs, newspaper cuttings, official documents and oil-related objects are occasional images of flora and fauna, birds and animals. These examples of natural inhabitants of the wood appear to have been surreptitiously pinned to the walls by the Wildlife Trust in a failed attempt to redress the balance between heavy industry and natural ecology. In one case a kind of absurd tableau is created where a vitrine encasing two taxidermy badgers shares space with an old oil drum and giant prehistoric-looking drill heads, like the disembodied mouths of huge mechanical moles.

The ‘Duke’s Wood Oil Museum’ and ‘Wildlife interpretative Centre’, as it is named on two separate signs nailed to the front of the building, is a space of on-going playful friction. It is symptomatic of the seeming opposition that characterises the site and the sometimes-uneasy relationship between the oil industry veterans and the Wildlife Trust, to which the woods now belong. This light-hearted mutual antipathy extends to the displays within the museum, where the battle for space is played out in a condensed and concentrated form. This space, in all it’s schizophrenic charm and disorganised eccentricity, has acted as the base for our artists in residence and has been one of the primary resources for aiding the research and development of their ideas.

The structure uses an old geological study laboratory that was originally sited in at least three separate locations around the country before reaching its final resting place at Duke’s Wood. More typically used for studying the composition of strata sampled from below the ground, the layers of which represent millions of years of history, the building now houses a collection of images and objects that comprehensively document and archive the relatively recent history of the wood from the point of its most significant human intervention at the beginning of the Second World War. The museum gives a kaleidoscopic view of history, unashamedly anachronistic in its display. It is a chaotic montage of objects and images in which temporality elapses making way for a new kind of radical museology where past, present and future converge.

In his mythic fiction Offshore Drilling Rig Graham Harman describes his fanciful musings whilst marooned on a rig off the South-East coast of America, ‘a textbook example of a tension-leg platform, in the storied Magnolia field at the edge of the so-called Titan Mini-Basin.’ With fictitious friend and fellow philosopher China Mieville, Harman reflects on how ‘oilmen expelled their souls through tubes toward the core of the earth, siphoning the remains of ancient ferns and reptiles in return.’

I shall quote quite a lengthy section of the work here, as Harman’s own philosophic prose should speak for itself:

‘We find ourselves on an offshore oil rig, guests of an industry on which all are dependent, yet which many thinking people view with disdain […]
Drilling into the earth’s crust far beneath the sea, it retrieves ancient materials from millions of years in the past. It draws them up to the surface of everyday life, where they are used as energy for the most prosaic modern actions. The heating of a banal chain restaurant, like our stupefied movements from home to office, is possible only through combusting the remains of monstrous plants and animals that would destroy us in any personal encounter. Consider the strange carnivorous flowers, giant reptiles, and scurrying mammalian ancestors that were contemporaries of the oil now drawn from this platform.
Now, imagine that instead of merely siphoning fuel for modern activities, these oil rigs had the power to draw full-blown ancient entities from the ground. Actual past species would be sucked from the earth, and we will assume that they come not only from the Jurassic and neighbouring periods, but even from more recent human history […]
It should not be imagined that the rig is capable of summoning all past, present, and future things in their own right. Instead, it draws forth images of them.’

Appropriated to articulate, by means of a mythic approach, his increasingly popular OOO (object oriented ontology), the oil rig analogy for Harman merely serves as a suitable model with which to consider the notion of an ‘occasionalist polytheism’, for, ‘the known ability of oil rigs to siphon entities from distant times and spaces’ functions as a particularly blasphemous secular alternative to an Occasionalist God. Instead of any singular religious deity mediating all interactions in the cosmos, an occasionalist polytheism would suggest an equality, not only between oil rigs but between all objects, to mutually affect and interact with one another. In Harman’s words,

‘For if we abandon the occasionalist God in favour of an oil rig, and then abandon a single all-powerful rig in favour of a vast legion of equipotent divine platforms, why stop there? Why not grant all objects the power to act as oil rigs, each draining phantasmal energy from all of the others? We can literally imagine all rabbits, monkeys, electrons, acids, and freight trains as equipped with pipes and tubing of their own. All real objects of every size now have the power to interact with all other things, at the price of turning them into images. The entire cosmos is in fact a dystopia filled with trillions of miniature deities, each of them a platform in a hurricane-infested gulf.’

Accepting all obvious deviations and digressions here I would like to adopt a similarly mythic approach to thinking about the Oil Museum, it’s contents, and the remaining nodding donkeys that inhabit the clearings in the surrounding wood where it is sited. Let us imagine for a moment, akin to Harman’s off-shore oil rigs, each one drawing up a multiplicity of images in substitute for their usual crude oil, that the nodding donkeys at Duke’s Wood served the very same purpose and pumped up images from the ground below. Yet, with no independent infrastructure like the oil rigs large platforms, the donkeys send their yield direct to the museum where it is diligently arranged, with an order familiar only to the collections keepers and custodians. Such is the volume of material transmitted to the museum, that the task of organising it quickly becomes insurmountable. And so, in spite of their best efforts the displays take on a wild, cluttered disparity. What is settled for as sense or logical order for our curators would appear completely arbitrary to the untrained eye.

Thus a kind of liquid museology takes shape where the lines between fact and fiction, narrative truth and tale, historical artefact and out of place artifice, blur and merge together in a continuous temporal flow.