09 September 2012

Packed In Oil

A wonderfully quirky word: "iddis," which is Norwegian for "sardine label collecting."  Apparently, there are whole organizations and clubs devoted to iddis.  No wonder: there are literally tens of thousands of different labels to collect.  These examples are displayed at the Norwegian fish canning museum, in Stavanger.  Labels make up only a small part of the collection; there are old wrenches and smokers, steam baskets and fish grinders, de-headers and tin-pressers, label printers and lid crimpers.  The building itself is an old tinning factory, with a century-old patina and beautiful light.
Stavanger is a pleasant seaside town with a turbulent history of depression and wealth, boom and bust. Because it's currently booming, there are over a dozen museums open.  On a rainy day in early September, as the sea churned grey and the populace huddled in their offices and bars, we visited two very interesting, very different ones: the Norsk Hermetikkmuseum (devoted to fish canning) and the Norwegian Petroleum Museum.  Together, they give a great picture of the town's glory days, grit and regeneration.
Norwegian Sardines aren't really sardines at all - that's just the category the canners thought would be most marketable.  In fact, there are no "true" sardines in the north Atlantic.  At least, there are none of the Mediterranean fish that popularized the term.  Instead, the most common "sardine" canned in Stavanger - and the type you'll still find in a tin of King Oscars - is really brisling.  These tiny little fish are actually mature when they're caught and canned, unlike true sardines which are too large at maturity to fit.  Also called European sprats (binomial: Sprattus sprattus), brisling are only about as big as  a baby carrot.
Along with herring, these delicious little fish made up the backbone of Stavanger's canning industry between the 1880's and the 1950's, when the industry fell on hard times.
Norway's fjords have always been full of fish, but - until industrial canning was invented - there was no way for those fish to be exported in any great quantity.  Sardine tins changed that, and Stavanger was at the forefront of the fish boom.
The sprats were caught in the fjords around Stavanger during the summer, from about May until October.  They arrived at the town docks packed with ice in wooden boxes.  At the cannery, they were salted, threaded onto steel rods, smoked, de-headed (first with scissors, later with purpose-built machines), laid into the cans by hand and filled in with oil.  Before a "seaming" machine was invented to seal the lids in place, the cans were soldered shut by hand.  When they were closed up, the cans were then steam-sterilized, washed, labeled and put into crates.
The floors creak, the walls are rough plaster.  Upstairs, one can peek into the old bathrooms and see a grainy film about the fishing ships.  Sardines are for sale in the entryway.  They advertise monthly sardine-smoking events, where one can taste "freshly smoked brisling from woodburning stoves."  It's all very low key and quiet.  Amazingly, the first-wave industrial equipment that was in use here lasted almost all the way until the middle of the twentieth century.  Stavanger's canning problem, eventually, wasn't a scarcity of fish.  They were just trying to compete using antiquated machinery.  Partly, that's what gives the museum its charm.
Stavanger's depression began even before the canneries closed.  The town was one of the scruffiest in Norway during the 1950's and '60's, with high unemployment and no great industry.  Even as other cities along the west coast were thriving, Stavanger wallowed.
Amazing what a few billion barrels of oil can do for a place.
Prominently displayed on the wharf, the Norwegian Petroleum Museum (Norsk Oljemuseum) stands as blocky, shiny testament to the new economy.  Here, monumental, spaceship-like machines crowd together behind sparkling glass.  Tubes droop, scuba gear hangs in the air, robot claws grasp at nothing.  Norway's oil mostly lies deep underwater, and the museum's focus is on the difficulties involved in extracting it.
At the beginning of the 1970's, Norway's government chose Stavanger to be the landfall point and onshore base for the country's new offshore drilling operations.  At the time, this was regionally significant, but not overwhelming news - there were far bigger petroleum producers in the world.  Now, though, it is a big deal.  Norway is currently the fifth largest oil exporter on earth and the sixth most productive natural gas country.  Statoil, the state-run Norwegian oil venture, is based in Stavanger.  Housing prices are nearly as high as in Oslo.  The streets are full of designer boutiques.  The city is scruffy no longer.
Even in miniature, shown as models, the offshore derricks are impossibly complex.  At tiny scale, they still towered over us - these platforms are virtually cities unto themselves, with room for thousands of occupants to live complete lives, miles away from land.
The world's largest drill bit is the first thing one encounters in the lobby.  It weighs almost two tons, and is about the size of a small armchair, with ugly, three-part teeth beneath it and a bolt on top as thick as a man's leg.  It's been cleaned up, of course, but it still has the snarled, dinged look of a tool-box regular.
The Ojlemuseum's greatest accomplishment, from a curatorial standpoint, is the way it displays very grimy, much-used artifacts in a clean, graceful way.  There are old control panels and submarines, wetsuits and blowout-plugs - all dented and abraded.  The space looks amazing.  The portrayal of the oil-industry, however, is a little defensive and heavy-handed.  It should be enough for a museum to focus on these deep sea drilling machines.  Nobody asked them to lay out an argument for petroleum.
One could spend a whole day there.  There are exhibits devoted to the earth's geologic history, to the primeval swamps that created the oil and to life onboard the platforms.  We counted three different movie rooms.  A large part of the museum is actually built on stilts out over the harbor.  There's a well-regarded restaurant.  In the lobby, a sign pointed the way to a meeting room; ExxonMobil apparently had a group visiting.  One (rather perplexing) feature got the kids all riled up - it was some sort of escape chute.  We're not sure where it led.

3 comments:

  1. I was amazing, the first-wave industrial equipment that was in use here lasted almost all the way until the middle of the twentieth century.

    regards
    Gangway

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  2. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8LT475.
    The image can be seen at wahooart.com who can supply you with a canvas print of it.

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