When Wiess Energy Hall opened up at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in the 1960s, it was little more than some used oilfield equipment and a few interactive displays.
Since then, however, it has grown to include a 60 percent-scale working replica of an offshore drilling rig drill floor, a documentary depicting the history of energy and a simulated flight to Karnes County, Texas, to experience the hydraulic fracturing of an oil well from inside the cracked rock.
“The exhibits in the new Wiess Energy Hall present the science and technology of energy for all visitors – from kindergartners to corporate leaders,” said Melodie Wade, spokesperson for the museum. “For many, their understanding of the oil industry – from upstream to downstream – will be enhanced as they explore the numerous topics presented by the Wiess Hall.”
Wade said that in the museum’s experience, some visitors enter the hall unaware of the diverse range of disciplines contributing to bringing energy to the public: geology, geophysics, fluid dynamics, hydraulics, chemistry, biology, computer programming and others.
Visitors might also come to better understand how the petroleum industry employs sophisticated technology to mitigate risk, and how hydrocarbons make possible so many products that they use every day.
Improvements Over the Decades
Wiess Energy Hall has seen several iterations since its debut in the 1960s. In 1994, the hall grew to 8,500 square feet as part of a major museum capital campaign and expansion. It used emerging technologies of 3-D animation and touch screens to tell the story of energy. It also included an extensive immersive environment of simulated rock, and the first “Geovator” – an imaginary journey inside an oil and natural gas well.
Later, in 2005, the Houston Museum of Natural Science opened Wiess Energy Hall 2.0 with a full suite of completely updated 3-D animation presented on the latest large-format flat screens, Wade said. The Geovator got a makeover, and two new theaters opened, presenting the animated musical video “Energy Is …” and the adventure cartoon “Energy Chase.”
Today’s 30,000-square-foot museum opened in November 2017 and features an all-new Geovator and an expanded Renewable and Future Energy Sources gallery, among other new attractions.
“We hope that every visitor to the Wiess Energy Hall will learn something new about energy and its importance to our everyday existence on earth,” Wade said. “We want our exhibits to inspire all our visitors to continue learning and exploring – and perhaps even entice some of them to pursue careers in energy.”
To that end, the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Education Department develops curricula for primary and secondary schools based on the Wiess Energy Hall’s content and Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS.
For example, the museum has Labs on Demand, which incorporates various topics, such as Fossil Sort, Land Forms, Layers of the Atmosphere, Layers of the Earth and Layers of the Ocean. “These labs usually happen at the museum but can travel to schools,” Wade said.
The museum also has the Aramco iExplore Energy Program for teachers and students of Galena Park Independent School District. The program uses the museum’s resources, including its Wiess Energy Hall, to educate fifth-grade teachers and students about the topics of energy, related TEKS objectives, and energy careers.
“The program has a component for educators as well as students,” Wade said. “This program happens only at the museum. It can be replicated for other school districts, but Aramco covers the costs for Galena Park ISD to participate.”
She said the museum also develops continuing education programs in collaboration with local universities.
Creating a Sense of Wonder
exhibits are considered permanent in that they are used during a five-to-ten-year lifespan, though they may be enhanced and updated more frequently based on ongoing advancements in science and technology, she added.
A team at the museum decides which exhibits to showcase based on “creating a sense of wonder and curiosity,” Wade said.
“As an example, when visitors exit the elevator into the exhibit, they enter what for many of them is an alien world: robots conducting drilling operations far out at sea,” she said. “As they take in the sights of the hall, visitors notice a gigantic tricone drill bit rotating overhead. Even for those familiar with this technology, the sight of this gargantuan replica can elicit a response.”
The team also wants to immerse visitors in an environment. For example, when visitors enter the Geology Gallery, they are surrounded by layers of sedimentary rock submerged beneath an undulating ocean. Giant replicas of marine microorganisms populate the waters overhead. As visitors move into the geophysical exhibits, the realistic rock walls transition into a physical manifestation of a digital model of subsurface geology, she said.
“We also choose exhibits to maximize interactivity,” she added. “In the new Wiess Hall, visitors can raise air pressure to fire a sleeve gun used in seismic exploration, operate the robotic arm of a subsea ROV, and fire a perforating gun to blast channels into reservoir rock, among other activities.”