Energy History Through the Eyes of a Regional Museum: The Likely Demise of the Canadian Energy Museum

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This piece is the first in a series of blogs about the Canadian Energy Museum, a small museum situated in the town of Devon, Alberta that is facing imminent closure due to the loss of funding.  The goal of these blogs is to share some of the Canadian Energy Museum’s rich collection with the broader community of environmental historians and museum professionals before the museum closes, as well as to tell the story of the unfolding funding crisis amongst smaller regional museums in Canada through the perspective of this museum. We hope that NiCHE’s readers might be compelled by these pieces to either donate to the effort to save the CEM, or to play a more active role in advocating for the continued funding of small regional museums across the country.

A little over a month ago, the Canadian Energy Museum (CEM) in Devon, Alberta, received the news that it was facing imminent closure. The City of Leduc and the Town of Devon suddenly halted their funding of the museum entirely, while Leduc County cut their funding by 50% in 2024 and will stop their funding entirely by 2025. As of the writing of this piece, the Museum has funding to remain operational until the end of May 2024. If (and likely, when) this museum closes, it will be a huge loss not only for western Canada, but also for a broader national audience. The CEM is a treasure of community history and represents what can best be described as a “bottom-up approach” to Canadian energy history.

News of the CEM’s closure will not surprise most museum professionals, historians, humanities and social sciences scholars, or avid museum goers. In their State of Museums in Canada: Brief to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in 2016, the Canadian Museums Association (CMA) rang a warning bell: museums across the country have been undervalued and ignored by governments. In particular, the brief emphasized that, while the majority of funding in Canada has gone towards national museums mostly situated in Ottawa, “the real stories that shaped this country are found in local, regional and small museums and galleries.”

The CEM is one such regional museum. Originally founded by former employees of Imperial Oil as the Leduc No. 1 Discovery Centre, the CEM was meant to be an interpretative complement to the adjacent area, which houses Canada’s first major commercial oil field. As the demand for domestic oil deposits grew in the early 20th century, Imperial Oil (founded in Ontario in 1880) began to conduct oil exploration in western Canada in 1910.1 Imperial Oil dug 133 dry wells before they hit an eruption of oil from the Leduc No. 1 well on February 13, 1947.2 The CEM grounds are therefore host to both a National Historic Site, and Provincial Historic Resource. The National Historic Site designation is for the entire Leduc-Woodbend Oilfield, while the Provincial Historic Resource designation serves to preserve the actual well site for the Leduc No.1 well.

exterior of the Canadian Energy Museum. White building with red trim.
Canadian Energy Museum in Devon, Alberta. Used with permission of the CEM.

A little over two years ago, I began working on a digital exhibit project with the CEM, along with my colleagues, Dr. Jean-René Leblanc (Professor, University of Calgary) and Dr. Rebecca Dolgoy (Curator of Natural Resources and Industrial Technologies, Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation). In collaboration with CEM’s Executive Director, Danni Cailliou, and the Collections Manager, Danielle Lane, we worked to develop a digital resource that would re-narrate the museum’s main permanent exhibit: the story of the Leduc No.1 oil discovery. The digital resource was attractive not only because of its ability to reach a broad audience outside of Alberta, but also because it was an easy way to rethink the CEM’s then outdated physical exhibit with minimal funds.

A replica of a shack built inside the museum. Two open windows on the side of a wooden clapboard wall with chairs and old washing machine sitting next to the shack.
A replica skid shack – a typical mid-20th century dwelling – in the CEM’s “Our Oil History” exhibit. Used with permission of the CEM.

While most narratives about Leduc No.1 reproduce stereotypes of frontier masculinity and the role of settler men in developing energy industry,3 our collaborative digital resource, Skid Shack AR, (presented in the form of an augmented reality app) focuses on the cosmopolitan and diverse stories of women and children, all drawn from the CEM’s archive and library. Our public-facing work aims to build on the critical research already developed by scholars focused on the role of women in energy history, such as those highlighted in the recent volume, In a New Light: Histories of Women and Energy, edited by Drs. Abigail Harrison Moore and Ruth Sandwell.4

A digital version of the shack from the museum rendered in three dimensions. The image of the shack hovers in the air with a backdrop of a living room with bookcases and two arm chairs.
Screenshot of the Energy Stories Lab’s interactive augmented reality skid shack app, SkidShack ARUsed with permission of the Energy Stories Lab.

While working on this project, Drs. Leblanc, Dolgoy and I discovered that the CEM is a resource unlike one we had seen before. Its value lies in the fact that it is a community-centred museum. Most of the collection objects and archives were donated by local community members and the corporations that employed them. This means that the collection objects index the daily life of workers and their families in the energy industry, as well as the lives of the residents in this part of central Alberta. It is a gem for those interested in social history.

a black and white photograph of three white women standing in skirts of dresses with their arms wrapped around one another. The back ground shows to shacks similar to those on display in the museum.
Photo of oil wives in front of their skid shack, 1950s Devon, Alberta. Used with permission of the CEM.

Some of the archival and collection  highlights include oral histories from the 1940s – 1960s, recipe books compiled by oil field families, felt banners sewn by the members of Oil Wives International, Maytag washing machines from the 1950s, and a full replica of a typical mid-20th century dwelling for oil families, a skid shack.  The rich archive also includes over 3000 unique periodicals, including a significant part of the Imperial Oil Review collection, as well as a nearly complete collection of The Roughneck magazine, which was founded in 1952, as “the voice of the Canadian oil community.

cover of a magazine called Imperial Oil Review. The cover photo shows a rig worker working a rig. The perspective of the photo is taken from the bottom of the rig looking up into the structure from below.
An issue of Imperial Oil Review in the CEM Library. Used with permission of the CEM.

The CEM’s archive and library, though it was founded by the corporate actors that enabled the expansion of Canada’s oil industry, also provides the possibility of alternative narratives to dominant Canadian energy histories precisely because of its focus on daily life. The museum reflects the reality that the documentation of daily life in mid 20th century Alberta was not the purview of men, but rather those people often hidden and exploited in the margins of oil history: women, children, migrant workers, farmers, and Indigenous labourers. The CEM very clearly demonstrates, as RW Sandwell writes that “women, families, and households were profoundly intertwined with the social, economic, political, and cultural changes that marked the long Euro-American transition from a rural and land-based society to an urban, capitalist, and industrial one.”5

In a recent piece about energy heritage in Alberta, Zoe Todd rightly criticizes the Alberta “provincial government’s framing of oil and gas (energy) as a “heritage” upon which Alberta is built.”6 This vision of heritage, Dr. Todd argues, is based on ideas of settler colonial claiming and ownership of the lands, waters, and geology of Alberta.7 In addition to recognizing the “deep non-western and more-than-human heritages that animated these lands,”8 we must work to go beyond the dominant triumphalist narrative of energy and industrial history in Canada advanced by governments and industry itself. Regional museums and their collections have a critical role to play in the retelling of our energy stories. In many ways, they are better able to represent the complexities, unequal relationships and power struggles within settler and Indigenous communities, and their location within broader industrial projects. The gradual disappearance of museums like the CEM and its vernacular material collections will only serve to reinforce the erasure of these colonial complexities within industrial projects.

Subsequent posts in this series will highlight difference objects and documents from the CEM to collection in order to illuminate how regional museums can add new perspectives to energy history.


1. Graham D. Taylor, Imperial standard: Imperial Oil, Exxon, and the Canadian Oil Industry from 1880 (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2019).

2. Bea Hunter, Last Change Well: Legends and Legacies of Leduc No. 1 (Edmonton: Tree Frog Press, 1997).

3. Kassandra Landry and Robin D. Willey. “‘Camp syndrome’: exploring frontier masculinity in Alberta’s oil production culture.” NORMA 18, no. 3 (2023): 174-190.

4. RW Sandwell and Abigail Harrison Moore, eds. A New Light: Histories of Women and Energy, (Montreal, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021).

5. RW Sandwell. “Changing the Plot: Including Women in Energy History (and Explaining Why They Were Missing).” A New Light: Histories of Women and Energy, eds. RW Sandwell and Abigail Harrison Moore (Montreal, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021): 16.

6. Zoe Todd. “Fossil Fuels and Fossil Kin: An Environmental Kin Study of Weaponised Fossil Kin and Alberta’s So‐Called “Energy Resources Heritage”.” Antipode (2022), 2.

7. Todd, 4.

8. Todd, 16.

Feature image: Exterior artefact garden, Canadian Energy Museum, Devon, Alberta. Used with permission of the CEM.
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Sabrina Perić (she/her) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Calgary. Her current research focuses on understanding the role that individuals and communities play in determining energy transition possibilities. As the co-director of the CFI-funded Energy Stories Lab at UCalgary, she favours a community-based and collaborative approach to energy research that brings together both anthropological as well as visual participatory methods.

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