Seminar by Virginie Tallio -- Making oil Visible: The Case of the Oil and Gas Section at the Ugandan National Museum

Seminars & Lectures
MISR Seminar Room 1
Event Date
February 27, 2019
Event Time
02:15 PM

Making oil Visible: The Case of the Oil and Gas Section at the Ugandan National Museum

A certain range of works tackle the importance of studying the representation of oil, not only as a commodity and an economic good, but as well as a natural resource, giving access to modernity.1 Its role as a component of culture, be it museal or popular, has also been investigated, mainly with regards to the US culture.2 Nonetheless, the presence of oil in museums has been hardly investigated. Some artists work with oil, such as Romuald Kazoumé who has been transforming jerrycans into masks in his serie Bidons, and Andrei Molodkin who has been using a mixture of oil and blood in his Crude instalations to depict the oil appetite of governments. Oil is here both considered as a material and as a representation of certain contemporaneous socio-economic dynamics. But oil can be a medium of representation as such. The way Apter describes how oil money nurtured confidence in the political and economic power of Nigeria has shed light on the processes of national identification brought by oil. The embodiment of oil in the US popular culture has been also largely displayed in paintings, sculptures or movies (Buell 2012). Likewise, oil companies have also already sponsored art exhibitions around oil, that aim at “rehabilitate (their) public image, and rebuild popular confidence in the oil industry” (Barrett 2012, p. 408). A few museums are dedicated to oil, but none of them is in sub-saharean Africa, yet its importance as a key oil producer cannot been denied. It is thus all the more important to consider how oil has been displayed in the National Uganda Museum. Clearly, the presence of a section dedicated to oil and gas within the Uganda National Museum has intrigued many visitors. In the middle of numerous artifacts illustrating a idealist idea of Uganda cultures, trying to show concomitantly the diversity and the richness of the different cultures of Uganda but also its unity now, and for most of these cultures, showing a quite “frozen in times” (Peterson, no date) image of Uganda, the apparition of a small exhibition around oil and gas is striking. This paper3 intends to analyze how oil has been made visible in the Section though it is largely invisible in the Ugandan context. Starting from the 3 different ways that oil is invisible in our understanding, we investigate how these obstacles have been bypassed. First, oil is a substance largely invisible because it is underground, and whose extraction, transport and transformation are done far away from the public eye. Second, oil industry is notoriously particularly secretive. The participation of the oil companies has been crucial in the refurbishment of the Section and was an attempt to make them less secretive. Third, oil exploitation has not yet started in Uganda, and thus, it is about showing something that is “yet to come”, in the words of Weszkalnys (2014).


1 We can refer to the works of scholars such as Jennifer Wenzel and Stephanie Le Menager.

2 We can refer to the special issue of the Journal of American Studies, 2012 46(2), Oil culture