Opportunity Cost

Morning in Stavanger was catch-up–Dr. K doing press business, me sorting out university correspondence–and so it was early afternoon before we set out for historic sites on the town. However nerdy this may sound, we both really wanted to call in at the Norsk Hermetik Museum, the Norwegian canning museum, because we read that on Tuesdays they fire up the ovens and process sprats, and you can sample sardines right from the racks. Which I did, but Dr. K declined, so I ate two of them. The exhibits on canning featured interesting technological artifacts, which I studied because the technology was applicable to the transportation of oysters out to the prairies in the nineteenth century, something I have been writing about in Plains Folk.

Dr. K was tickled to find that the Norsk Hermetik Museum is co-located in the old cannery with the Norsk Grafisk Museum, the Norwegian museum of design and printing. (The joint museum operates under the name Iddis.) She got pretty absorbed in all that while I was nosing through the canning stuff, and I suspect she will be posting some photos.

After this we made our way across the harbor and around the point to the Norsk Oljemuseum, the Norwegian Petroleum Museum. The history of the rise of offshore drilling in the North Sea since 1969 is well-known and is pivotal to the emergence of the Norway as we know it in the twenty-first century. By the time we got to the museum my phone was dead, so we’ll have to rely on Dr. K for photos, but in retrospect I’m rather glad I was unable to take pictures and so was focused on comprehending the exhibit material. Which was massive, and comprised an astonishing collection of modern artifacts, along with a reef of models and media. I cannot do justice to it all. I can, however, tell you the effect it had on me emotionally and intellectually.

Beginning at the end–I concluded that this museum could not happen in America. It is so dense, and the discourse so elevated, that consultants and designers would never buy in. The simple volume of information is challenging, but the ideas, the human values wrapped up in the technological issues, are daunting. I think if a museum studies class were to tour the Norst Oljemuseum, the scholars would say, this is too much; it all must be simplified, dumbed down, and perhaps made less disturbing. And yet the museum was full of people actively engaging its content. It is a conviction of mine that those of us who trade in intellectual content for public consumption must challenge and elevate ourselves and our audiences. The Norst Oljemuseum is doing this. Could it be done in America? Would it be tolerated in America?

Because the content is not just serious, it is critical. The Norst Oljemuseum initiates the sort of conversations we never have had in North Dakota: the relationship between resource extraction and the public good; the human gain and cost for persons on the front lines of extraction; the long-term effects of short-term profit. In Norway, the petroleum industry is state enterprise. The industry itself has initiated these deeper conversations. It is all rather breath-taking.

As a citizen of North Dakota, and a scholar of the plains, I came away from the Norst Oljemuseum informed, stimulated, and disturbed. I came away with a deep sense of opportunity squandered. As the Bakken Boom unfolded, we often preached from the text of our prior experience with resource booms–in America. We have paid for our parochiality. We might have done much better. It is possible that the same deficiencies in our society and nation that would make it impossible to have something like the Norst Oljemuseum also made it impossible to deal competently with our situation on the ground.

Thomas D. Isern

Professor of History & University Distinguished Professor, North Dakota State University

2 thoughts on “Opportunity Cost

  • August 3, 2022 at 12:21 am

    Superb piece … thank you Tom.

    • August 3, 2022 at 10:12 am

      You are kind, Joe. You can see this experience hit me where I live.


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