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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.