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Volume 43, Number 6November/December 1992

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The Discovery Principle

“Touch, think and explore…”

Written by Arthur Clark
Photographed by S. M. Amin

Business is booming at the Aramco Exhibit, a unique, high-tech museum near Saudi Aramco's Dhahran headquarters that dramatically tells the story of the petroleum industry in Saudi Arabia and spotlights, as well, some of the Muslim world's technological heritage. Five years old in October, the Exhibit receives tens of thousands of visitors a year - especially school children and families, the latter particularly during the Muslim holidays of 'Id al-Fitr and 'Id al-Adha.

But museum guests also include a fair number of VIP's, for the Exhibit is often on the itinerary of international visitors. Margaret Thatcher, former British prime minister, and Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize, the Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the oil industry, are among recent explorers at the Exhibit - and like the families, many of them want to come back again too. Wrote Thatcher in the museum guest book, "A truly wonderful exhibition. I hope to return to view it more fully..."

Just what's the Exhibit's pulling power?

For one thing, it uses state-of-the-art technology to intrigue, involve and educate visitors. Its repertoire includes interactive computer games and a variety of ingenious hands-on displays.

For another, the Exhibit holds unique material, including rare film footage of historical events. Its location, in one of the world's most important centers of oil production, is also first-rate, with Saudi Arabia's 1938 discovery well just a kilometer (1100 yards) away and Saudi Aramco's cutting-edge Exploration and Petroleum Engineering Center another kilometer beyond that (See Aramco World, May-June 1988).

Most important, however, the Exhibit boasts at its center an eye-opening series of displays that its founders say make-up the world's finest museum presentation of the contributions of medieval Muslim scientists to humanity.

Colorful museum catalogs, available at the entry, go straight to the point of the Exhibit: It is meant to be "a place for joyful learning,... a caravansary for the curious," revealing secrets about the past, the present and the juxtaposition of the two.

That theme is reinforced at the museum's orientation display. Press a button, and a voice invites you - in Arabic or English - to "touch, think and explore," and then gives a sample of what lies ahead: "Turn a wheel to open a pipe valve, or operate a drill bit. Watch a video program about photosynthesis, or take a computer quiz on how objects float. Pump water in the fashion of 13th-century inventors, investigate ship shapes and create a sound wave," says the narrator. "You'll be surprised by your discoveries."

The museum operates on the principle of discovery common to facilities around the world that share its teaching mission. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the Deutsche Museum in Munich and the British Science Center in London all opened their doors to help Aramco Exhibit personnel gain operations ideas.

But what distinguishes the Exhibit among all those institutions is its prototype Arabic-Islamic Technical Heritage section, and the ultramodern way it tells the tale of the petroleum industry in Saudi Arabia. What's more, everything - from portions of important medieval Islamic manuscripts to videos and computer games - is presented in both Arabic and English.

"There is no oil and gas museum like it in the world in terms of scale or sophistication," says Ismail I. Nawwab, general manager of Saudi Aramco Public Affairs, whose Exhibit Division runs the facility. "But it is the Arabic-Islamic Technical Heritage section that makes it unique."

Saudi Arabia, of course, is the heartland of Islam, where the Prophet Muhammad received his calling and where the Qur'an was revealed to him (See Aramco World, November-December 1991) - thus the special place in the museum for Muslim scientists and their gifts to humanity.

"We wanted to link the Exhibit with our culture, not just with the oil and gas industry," explains Nawwab. "We wanted it to reflect Saudi Arabia's position in Islam and some of the seminal technical contributions of Islam to world civilization."

A time line covering the major political and entific developments in each of the first 10 centuries of Islam - the seventh through 16th centuries by Western reckoning - puts the Islamic scientific contributions at the museum's heart into historical perspective (See Aramco World, May-June 1982). The displays themselves touch on on geology, geography, navigation, mathematics, astronomy, timekeeping, optics, mechanics, hydraulics and alchemy, the forerunner of modern chemistry.

While the section's scope is vast, it's studded with carefully selected information and items to focus the mind and the eye: quotations and pictures from medieval Muslim manuscripts, working models, sparkling rock crystals and even a huge armillary sphere, one of the most accurate of the astronomical measuring and teaching devices of medieval Muslim experimental scientists.

Among the scholars noted here are Jabir ibn Hayyan, the father of Arab alchemy; Muhammad al-Khwarizmi, who wrote the first treatise on algebra; Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a noted physician and translator who wrote one of the first treatises on the eye; Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni, who contributed to scholarship in many fields, including geography, astronomy, matheatics and comparative religion; and al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, a physicist who laid the foundations of modern optical science.

Striking examples of these scientists' work are only steps away.

Take al-Biruni, for example. Visitors playing the touch-screen computer game "Measuring with Triangles" can learn some of the principles of trigonometry, a subject elaborated by the 11th-century scholar. Or they can learn how he surmised that "the desert of Arabia was at one time a sea," a hypothesis confirmed in the museum's Origins of Petroleum section, where visitors can see firsthand how that prehistoric ocean laid the base for Saudi Arabia's oil fortunes.

"Drawing upon the scientific traditions of the ancient world, Muslim thinkers enriched the stream of knowledge with their original contributions and then passed it on to future generations," sums up the museum catalog. "Within 300 years of the birth of Islam [that is, by the mid-ninth century], Arabic had become the international language of scientific thought. As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, the works of these scholars, as well as their translations of classical texts and original learning, were absorbed by the West, providing a foundation for the Renaissance."

The debt that modern-day technology, science and mathematics owe to Muslim scholars becomes clear on a stroll through the museum. In a sense, repayment of that debt began just 60 years ago, when the western technological revolution came to Saudi Arabia, spearheaded by the US petroleum industry.

To help prepare the Arabic-Islamic Technical Heritage section of the Exhibit, Saudi Aramco consulted Islamic scholars of international renown. They included Abdul Hamid Sabra, Harvard University professor of the history of science, who helped lead a team of experts in different areas of medieval Islamic science. A number of the exhibits in this section and elsewhere display photographs of the original scientific manuscripts and their hand-drawn illustrations, giving the museum a vibrant and realistic air of discovery in process.

Arrayed counterclockwise around the Technical Heritage exhibits are seven sections of the museum devoted entirely to petroleum - often in novel, eyecatching ways. At The Aramco Story on a recent afternoon, a group of school children watched a film showing a smiling King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, arriving in Ras Tanura in May of 1939 to dispatch the first tanker-load of Saudi Arabian crude oil. Across the way in the Origins of Petroleum section, youngsters were examining fossil seashells up to half a billion years old, and trying to outscore each other in a computer game about the chemistry of oil. In Searching for Petroleum, they met some of the first oil prospectors in the kingdom and inspected their gear, or vigorously hammered a rock to create simulated seismic Shockwaves. Many exhibits refer back to the scientific principles introduced in the Technical Heritage section.

Everywhere are levers to pull, buttons to push, and things that flow out or flare up or fall down. In the Drilling, Producing and Reservoir Management section, kids view a film about sinking a well and turn a crank to rotate a three-cone drilling bit. They perform tests to measure the relative mechanical advantage provided by the inclined plane, wheel and axle, pulley, lever, and gears. In Oil Refining and Gas Fractionation, they listen as the complex work of distilling hydrocarbons is expressed in simple terms, and poke each other in amazement when they see displays of the products made from petroleum - ranging from hairbrushes to aspirin tablets, and from rayon fabrics to many of the parts of a gleaming red motorcycle.

Says 11-year-old Andy Greenleaf of nearby Abqaiq, whose father is in the oil business, "You think that petroleum is only used to start engines. I didn't think it could make things - even clothes. Petroleum's in everything, just about."

To advise on the museum sections about the petroleum industry, Saudi Aramco relied on its own in-house experts, employees knowledgeable in various facets of oil operations. They included specialists in exploration, drilling, producing, refining and transportation, as well as project engineers, photographers and media specialists.

Staff translators and writers were also intimately involved in the project. Translating technical terms from English to Arabic, for the museum's hundreds of labels, display panels and explanatory signs, proved particularly challenging. "This was the first time some of these terms had been translated for the layman," explains Nawwab, who headed the effort. "To make the technical terms intelligible to the public we actually coined phrases."

The museum, he says, is the fruit of "a huge collaborative effort involving people with many specialties from across the company and across the world." The objective from the outset was to make "an original and professional contribution, intelligible to visitors of all ages.

"Besides its content, we wanted all the related aspects of creating a museum to be considered and given their due importance: modern Muslim architecture, construction methods, use of space, traffic planning, lighting and acoustics, all types of audio-visual presentations, computer technology and, not least important, interactive displays that could survive whatever treatment might be meted out to them by thousands upon thousands of visitors - all this was undertaken with the single objective of erecting an institution which would be visually and pedagogically dramatic."

A leading San Francisco exhibit-design group, working from ideas vetted and approved in Dhahran, carried out the conceptual development of the project. Two US exhibit fabricators had the main responsibility for realizing the designers' ideas. A top Saudi architect won the competition among six Saudi firms to design the building, a 6660-square-meter (72,000-square-foot) structure whose displays cover 2340 square meters (25,000 square feet).

Standing in rocky terrain, the Aramco Exhibit building reflects traditional Islamic architecture in modern terms. It is faced with marble and features white precast concrete arches. Light streams in through a two-story glass wall and glints from stainless steel screens and railings; a bubbling, basement-level fountain provides a never-ending song. A musalla, or prayer room, is nearby. The hallways in the ground-floor administrative area are arcades resonant of mosque architecture, while the arches of the Arabic-Islamic Technical Heritage section convey the library-like ambiance of a madrasah , or school, of classical Islamic times.

The building holds a 300-seat auditorium for multimedia showings and a mini-theater for short presentations to small groups. It also has a small library, a general science laboratory, a computer classroom and a large space for temporary exhibits.

The seed that grew into the Aramco Exhibit was planted back in 1976, when Nawwab and his family visited the Lawrence Hall of Science at Berkeley, one of the centers of the then-novel interactive museum technology. His son, Muhammad, six years old, began playing with an interactive display and "wouldn't quit," Nawwab recounts. "He didn't want to leave. I thought that was fantastic. His interest made me wish we could do something like that in Saudi Arabia someday."

Opportunity knocked several years later when Saudi Aramco decided to update its antiquated Oil Exhibit Center. Planning for the new museum began in 1980, ground was broken in 1984 and it opened in October of 1987.

Besides being a house of discovery, the museum in Dhahran is meant to serve as a prototype for other facilities of its kind elsewhere in the world. "We are the trail blazers. What we hope is that the Exhibit will encourage others to do similar museums, that it will serve as a stepping-stone for others in the areas of petroleum and Islamic heritage," says Nawwab.

"Today's museums address a visually and intellectually sophisticated public - a critical public," he continues. "Museums have become a integral part of contemporary society, a focal point where people and ideas mix. They are an embodiment of that wonderful quality, 'solidarity of specification,' which the writer Henry James ascribed to successful fiction - and which applies equally to facts and reality."

The wish to make the museum a beacon may be coming true already. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, who visited the Aramco Exhibit in 1989, subsequently sent a delegation back to Dhahran to meet with Saudi Aramco representatives with a view to establishing a similar museum in his own country.

Visitors to the museum can take pot luck and sample exhibits at random, but it's probably best to plot a course and stick with it. In light of the wealth of material at hand, teachers often arm their students with worksheets and pencils to help focus learning. But strait-laced, formal "educating" is not what is expected, or even hoped for.

"When the first class of school children came, they all lined up and didn't touch anything," says museum director Farooq al-Janahi. "But we are changing that whole philosophy. We want children to have the freedom to play, to explore, to touch, to examine. We want them to have the freedom to think, to play a game for half an hour if they wish. The first thing we tell teachers is to let the children explore on their own."

The museum is "for everybody," says al-Janahi, whose staff numbers 32, including 18 bilingual guides. "Everybody" ranges from kindergartners, who see a film, take a guided tour of specific exhibits and then receive Exhibit coloring books and crayons, to adult family members brought by students who have visited before. "The kids know how to read and write, but maybe their mother or father doesn't," says al-Janahi. "Here, they too can look, listen and learn."

While the philosophy of allowing children free rein may disturb adults schooled in quieter, less frenetic environments, it obviously inspires the youngsters, who dart from display to display with the speed - and the twittering - of swallows. The idea has also won many converts among educators.

Dr. Sa'id A. Abu 'Ali, director general of education in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, where Dhahran is located, is one fan. He puts the museum high on the list of field-trip sites he recommends for the 125,000 students under his wing in grades one through 12. Visits to the museum are part of the syllabus in social sciences and applied sciences, and particularly in courses on the history of the Eastern Province and the petroleum industry.

"The Exhibit helps to crystallize many different points," he says. "The majority of students feels that what they've heard there about history, industry and science has accelerated their learning."

The museum highlights Saudi Arabia's "will to introduce oil and the will to use it to modernize, which is in itself an educational value from which we can benefit," Abu 'Ali says. The huge transfer of technology to the kingdom since the discovery of oil in 1938 has meant that "many foreigners have come to our country. We have been able to accept them, and at the same time we have been able to build a bridge of understanding between the newcomers and our society."

The museum itself shows the extent to which technology transfer has given way, over the years, to technological innovation within Saudi Arabia. The museum's Aramco Story displays, for instance, highlight the company's huge training program, and visitors get video introductions to some of today's Saudi professionals. These employees, among them a petroleum engineer, a physician, an airplane pilot, an accountant and a paleontologist, explain - in two languages - what they do at work.

The museum's realistic presentations of what are often dry "schoolbook" facts may fire the imaginations of future professionals, too. The Aramco Exhibit fleshes out what students learn in the classroom, says Atiyyah al-Ghamidi, principal of Ibn Battutah School in Qatif, a town 30 kilometers (19 miles) up the coast from Dhahran. "Refining is explained in a very vivid way, and because of the vivid examples of refinery products like tar and gas that the student has in front of him, he will never forget," al-Ghamidi says.

Teachers like the museum, too. "It's wonderful; it's overwhelming," notes Trulee Reed, a fourth-grade teacher at Saudi Aramco's Abqaiq School. "The kids really enjoy it. They love the hands-on and the video exhibits where they can interact - and they're amazed that Dhahran used to be just a few little tents out in the middle of nowhere."

What's in the future for the Aramco Exhibit? Plenty, say its operators.

It's targeted to become a place where volunteers from many walks of life can invest time to further education on many levels, in line with the Islamic tenet of service to the community. "In Islam, you worship God by devotional prayer and also by serving society," says Nawwab. "That's a tradition we would like to keep and enhance here."

Projects in the planning stages include starting a computer club, with Arabic programs for children and computer courses for Saudi Aramco retirees. Another idea: using the museum as a venue where company employees and retirees can teach English and mathematics to Saudi schoolchildren during vacations and on weekends.

Volunteers from the local community, assisted by museum guides, have already shown, what can be accomplished. During 'Id al-Adha in June, they helped children mount a rousing cultural program, focusing on nine countries around the world, which was performed in front of friends and families in the museum auditorium. Twenty-three youngsters participated - and more want to be involved next year.

Finally, museum executives say they're working on a plan to establish an open-air exhibit area. Here, equipment such as a full-size drilling rig or a pipeline pump the size of a jumbo-jet engine could be displayed, providing a whole new arena for hands-on adventure.

The museum aims to keep pace with the times and remain "perennially interesting," says Nawwab, with updated displays and a variety of temporary exhibits - like the exhibition of historic industry photographs dating back to the 1930's that was mounted in September. Traveling exhibits are planned as well: The first one is slated to go from Dhahran to the Houston Children's Museum.

But the best news for the museum comes from its most precious audience, the youngsters who've stopped at the Saudi Aramco caravansary and found it to be both challenging and fun. As a beaming Ismail Ibrahim, 14, of Riyadh, put it, "I like this place because it asks so many questions and gives so many answers. Can I come back?"

Arthur Clark, a staff writer for Saudi Aramco, visits the Aramco Exhibit with his daughter Caitlin.

This article appeared on pages 16-23 of the November/December 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1992 images.