Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Venango Museum of Art, Science and History

(News-Herald, July 23) In Venangoland, we are so soaked in oil history we sometimes forget that most communities are not. In most places “oil heritage” makes about as much sense as “weasel heritage” or “toupee heritage” or “spam heritage.” Except, of course, that weasels and toupees haven’t changed the course of civilization (you might make a case for spam).
To warm up for this week’s extravaganza of oil heritaginess, my daughter and I made a visit last week to the Venango Museum of Art Science and History. It’s been a while since I’d been, so I was interested to see what there is to see.
The first thing we noticed about the museum is how absolutely slick and professional its presentation is. It’s not unusual in such “small market” museums to find displays and signage that looks as if they were done by the curator’s niece with some magic markers on her kitchen table.
But the museum looks good. Really good. There are wall-sized illustrations that are eye-catching and impressive, and signage is completely professional. You can pooh-pooh these things as mere cosmetics, unrelated to the actual content of a place, but these design elements set a tone. The eyewash in the Venango Museum says, “We are serious about this stuff.”
Visitors to the museum are greeted by some nice graphics and a coin-fed arcade wizard (like the one in Big) who introduces himself as the “Wizard of Black Gold or Black Magic.” “Black Gold or Black Magic” is the title of the current exhibit; not exactly poetry, but it gets the idea across.
If you don’t feed the wizard, you’ll be greeted a few feet further in by another recorded voice. Warning: this voice is triggered by a motion sensor and people (like, say, middle-aged English teachers) who are being distracted by other exhibits might be startled into a loud reaction that invites teasing from other visitors (like, say, my daughter).
There are many nifty, informative exhibits. There’s a great display of memorabilia related to Rattlesnake Pete, one of the region’s most colorful characters. This is a great batch of stuff and may well be worth the price of admission all by itself.
For that matter, admission is worth the price of admission. If this big beautiful building were sitting there empty, it would be worth a few bucks just to tour it.
Also worth the price of admission is the 1920’s era Wurlitzer theater organ. The console is a beautiful piece of art in its own right, but the music it makes is also a rare treat. Be sure to ask to hear it when you visit; modern technology means that no actual organist is required in order to hear this gorgeous instrument.
Another display shows a mannequin version of Ida Tarbell at her desk, briefly explaining her importance in the history of both oil and journalism. It even underlines how deliciously ironic it was for Ralph Nader to own the Transit Building in Oil City.
There is a really nice car, a Cord Phaeton. The museum’s website says it’s a 1935 model. It also says that it’s a 1937 model. The notes I took from the sign in the museum say 1930, but maybe I made a mistake. At any rate, a beautiful car from 193-something.
There are displays about the oil industry itself; how informative they are depends on how little you know to start with. If you are hosting someone from outside the area who wants to know what the big oil deal is around here, the museum is a good way to get started. For locals, some of this is not exactly news, but some is kind of cool. For instance, they have a nice working mini-model of the pumphouse-driver-well set-up that we’ve all stepped over the pieces of in one section of Venangoland woods or another.
There’s also a giant dinosaur sort-of-skeleton and a gift shop with plenty of oildom memorabilia. Though it has “Venango” in its title, the museum is mostly Oil City-centric, but that makes it a good fit for the next few days of oily celebration. It doesn’t take a great deal of time to tour the museum, and it doesn’t take a great deal of money to get in the door.
The Venango Museum is certainly a facility we can recommend to visitors with pride as well as a place that locals don’t visit as often as we ought to. While you’re celebrating oil heritage days, make it a point to stop in.

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