Darkened Waters: Profile of an Oil Spill

Topic: Other Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Kathleen McLean

Published on January 09, 2008, Modified on August 08, 2011

  • Description and goals

    The November 2007 oil spill in the San Francisco Bay was an ugly deja vu. As I read about the initial collision report, the first emergency response, the rising anger of powerless citizens, and the desperate attempts of oiled seabirds to fly from sticky waters, I was transported back to the nightmare of eighteen years ago when in March 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil.

    Mind you, the San Francisco Bay is not pristine, and the toxic bunker fuel released was a mere 58 thousand gallons. It was just enough to wreak havoc on the bay environment, but not enough to sustain media attention for more than a few days.

    The Exxon Valdez spill was different in that regard. It did get media attention—a lot of it—along with lawsuits, new laws, and a small exhibition, called “Darkened Waters: Profile of an Oil Spill,” which traveled the country for eleven years. I worked on that exhibition, and it was one of the most profound experiences of my career so far. The Pratt Museum, a small natural history museum in Alaska, organized the exhibition at the urging of their visitors. Mike O’Meara, the museum curator for “Darkened Waters,” wrote a comprehensive case study in the book, “Are We There Yet? Conversations about Best Practices in Science Exhibition Development,” and I have included a PDF of that case study to the right. I’m writing this case study for ExhibitFiles from my personal perspective, reflecting on why this small inexpensive exhibition, organized, designed, fabricated, and installed in less than six months, is still one of my favorites.

    “Darkened Waters” was a humble exhibition, built of materials at home in Alaska: plywood, latex paint, paper, steel hinges, cloth, photographs, rope, plastic ties, oil barrels, netting, spill response gear, and even crude oil. It simply told the story of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, from the moment of the tanker grounding, through all of the events of response and cleanup, to some of the early known effects on people, wildlife, and habitat.

    The exhibition was organized around seven major communication goals or big ideas that shaped the design and content:
    • Alaska is a national treasure that must be protected.
    • It was a huge disaster.
    • It changed peoples’ lives.
    • We couldn’t clean it all up.
    • It’s not over.
    • We learned (and are continuing to learn) lessons we shouldn’t forget.
    • I’ve got to do something. What can I do?

    The exhibition consisted primarily of photographs, many by world-renown photographers who donated them for display. The images were accompanied by a few objects, 5 low-tech audio stations, and several interactive exhibits, including a visitor feedback station. All were mounted on vertical sheets of plywood connected by steel hinges, or on top of metal oil drums.

    The exhibition traveled to 17 venues in 10 states over eleven years.

  • Development process and challenges

    “Darkened Waters” began its life several weeks after the spill, as a small quick installation at the Pratt Museum, meant to keep visitors informed of spill events as they unfolded. The museum received so much feedback from visitors—demanding that the exhibition travel throughout the U. S.—that they decided to create a more comprehensive traveling version. They hired a design firm and developed an exhibition manuscript of over 11,000 words. By the time I was contacted in December 2000, the museum had decided that their 80% design development documents did NOT describe the exhibition they wanted to make, and they were essentially starting over with a new design firm, Gordon Chun Design. Much of their budget had already been spent, and they were committed to a Spring 2001 opening at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. They were crazy, but this was important. I dropped everything I could, and flew to Alaska.

    In one twelve-hour charette, we developed Communication Goals or “big ideas” that the exhibition would attempt to communicate to visitors. Over the next several months, we used the existing manuscript to create a storyline that focused only on telling the story of the spill, primarily in the words of people who were there. We tried to avoid editorializing, we eliminated most of the background information, and avoided curatorial conclusions. In the end, we created 8 drafts of the storyline and 11 drafts of the exhibit text, based on the following six general guidelines that I developed:

    1. Stick to the communication goals.
    If the information didn’t support the goals, we eliminated it. There were many peripheral stories people wanted us to include, such as the history of oil in Alaska, and facts and figures about the Alaska pipeline. We eliminated about 2/3 of the information originally planned for inclusion. Then we broke our own rule and squeezed in several important side stories that came up during the development process, such as the story of Native Peoples’ reliance on food from the sea.

    2. Just tell the story.
    As we developed the exhibition script, we often found ourselves editorializing. For example, we labored over describing Captain Joseph Hazelwood’s condition when the tanker ran aground. What SHOULD we say? What COULD we say? Was he inebriated? Asleep at the wheel? Finally, rather than describing Hazelwood’s involvement, we let Captain Hazelwood tell it himself, in the audiotape of his actual conversation with the Coast Guard the night he ran aground. And rather than describing in words how gruesome, frustrating, and heart-wrenching the spill was, we let the images speak for themselves. Storytelling was the perfect technique for this exhibition, since we simply described the events in chronological fashion (with a beginning, a middle, and a to-be-continued end).

    3. Tell one story at a time.
    We had a lot of information to communicate. By dividing it into distinct, concise segments, and by using good storytelling techniques to organize the information, we hoped people would understand and absorb one segment at a time before moving to another section.

    4. Tell the story in different ways.
    First we determined the story, then we selected the components that best told it. We used objects, charts, diagrams, maps, sounds, smells, and things to touch. We also told the story from a variety of perspectives. We included a “point of view” statement from the Pratt Museum, which took a conservation position. And we included the variety of divergent opinions expressed by the oil industry, environmentalists, government officials, and the community, in “points-of-view” panels throughout the exhibition.

    5. Test the ideas with visitors.
    The very idea for creating the exhibition came from the visitor comment books at the museum. Once the prototype exhibition opened at the Oakland Museum, we evaluated it and redesigned it based on evaluation results.

    6. Keep up with the information.
    Although the essential story of the event didn’t change over time, new sub-stories emerged throughout the run of the exhibition, such as the results of court cases and scientific studies. We developed a system of “Update” tags that were continuously added to the exhibition as it traveled.

    The Smithsonian agreed to postpone its venue dates, and we completed design and fabrication in the San Francisco Bay Area, opening the “prototype at the Oakland Museum in June 2001. Once the exhibition was full of visitors, Beverly Serrell conducted several summative remedial evaluations, and we revised the exhibition before it opened at the Smithsonian.

    The exhibition is now being refurbished once again, this time for permanent installation in an Alaskan museum near the site of the spill.

    I can’t recall anything about this project that WASN’T a challenge. For the people of Alaska, just dealing with the spill was a challenge. For those of us working on the exhibition, the skimpy budgets and grueling deadlines kept us awake at night. For the museum, which had never done a project of this scale, it was overwhelming. On top of it all, we continually faced a contagious paranoia. We were dealing with a contentious and troubling event, and from the beginning came warnings from colleagues, funders, and politicians.

    When the Pratt Museum first floated the idea of creating a traveling exhibition about the spill, no one would touch it for obvious reasons: Museums didn’t want to get in trouble with oil company funders; the spill was over—it was an “old” story that was no longer news; and visitors don’t attend “downer” exhibitions. On top of that, Exxon Corporation wasn’t very happy with the idea of a traveling exhibition about the spill.

    But Pratt Museum staff persevered, at the ongoing insistence of their visitors. Their regional funders and communities were willing to support modest costs for exhibit development, and donations of photographic images were pouring in. The breakthrough came when the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian agreed to take it. At least the exhibition would have one venue—and an important one at that.

    People at the Smithsonian expressed concern about the “low production values” of the exhibition, but we insisted that it should reflect the spirit (and budget) of the Pratt Museum. It wasn’t until the exhibition opened at the Smithsonian, and colleagues could see it for themselves, that museums started to express interest in hosting it.

    Even then, the challenges continued. At one point during a visit to the exhibition at the Smithsonian, I noticed a number of people with clipboards interviewing visitors. When I commended Smithsonian staff on their support of visitor research, they didn’t know what I was talking about. When we confronted the “researchers,” they disappeared, and to this day we’re not sure who they were. And the Alaskan Senator who chaired the Appropriations Committee in charge of approving funding for the Smithsonian was furious that the exhibition was in Washington, and a flurry of newspaper articles and editorials fueled public attention.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    Lessons learned? There were many, but here are a few simple ones:

    Trust the public.
    Visitors to the Pratt Museum’s original exhibit came up with the idea to travel it. The museum listened, and I think that continuous public response kept museum staff going during the difficult times.

    Trust what you believe in.
    Everyone who worked on the exhibition knew it was an important story, despite all the naysayers and the many veiled threats that surfaced during the course of exhibit development and design.

    Don’t be afraid of “downer” stories.
    Wherever it went, this exhibition was well attended.

    Keep it simple.
    “Low production values” didn’t keep visitors from attending to and spending time in the exhibition.

    The most enduring lesson I learned from this experience was about the generative nature of collaboration. When people commit to trusting each other and truly working together on something, anything is possible.

    As I sit here looking out on the oiled San Francisco Bay these many years later, I wonder if the exhibition really made any difference in people’s lives. It certainly didn’t avert any oil spills.

    We included a visitor comment bulletin board in the exhibition at the Oakland Museum and at the Smithsonian, but it didn’t end up traveling with the exhibition over the next 10 years. I think some museums added their own, but I regretted not including that component in the traveling version.

    Although we were attempting to be as green as possible, we still ended up using oil based inks and plastic vitrines. (This was before soy based inks were widely available.)

    As you can tell from the images included here, we never took pictures of the exhibition with PEOPLE in it. Without the visitors, the exhibition looks wimpy.

  • Exhibition Opened: June 1991

  • Traveling Exhibition: Yes

  • Location: Homer, AK, United States

  • NSF Funding: Yes, Grant No. 9150159

Latest Comments (3)

Public trust--and trusting the public

by Wendy Pollock - February 14, 2008

Kathy, this case study is not only timely, but full of ideas that can be applied to other exhibition topics. Thank you! I hope we can move over to the blog to discuss some of these themes (like trust). I wanted to note here that NSF supported the traveling version of this exhibition (award #9150159; ASTC managed the tour). The topic has been called “controversial,” but as Robert Sullivan (then of NMNH) remarked to me at the DC opening, “it’s not controversial—it’s educational.” It was part of the museum’s role, he implied, to present this important story to the public. By the way, I’m pretty sure the people with the clipboards were from Exxon; they contacted us about the exhibition around that time.

Twenty Year Later

by Wanda Chin - April 24, 2009

It’s hard to believe that 20 years has gone by—and the judgment on the financial damages finally was ruled by the Supreme Court in June, 2008, some 19 years after the event. The University of Alaska Museum hosted this exhibit in Fairbanks, early in its tour. This exhibit demonstrated that there are local topics that speak universally, and controversy or not, the human story can be learned about and appreciated. Though exhibit visual styles may change, difficult and challenging exhibits need courageous people to make and present them. The Pratt Museum marks this anniversary with an exhibit, Reflections of Spill: 20 Years Later (March 24-June 28) in Homer, Alaska.

Still a favorite and a milestone

by Beverly Serrell - October 22, 2013

This was one of the most powerful and useful experiences of my exhibit-making and evaluating career. Your updated case study is a marvelous review of lessons to live by.

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