March 5, 2024

Augmented reality exhibit tells story of war brides and other women who helped build Alberta’s oil industry

Faculty of Arts partnership with museums shines spotlight on skid shacks and the families who lived in them
A group of people stand in a convention style center with a skid shack in the background
Opening reception of the new skid shack exhibition at the Canadian Energy Museum in Devon, Alta. Sabrina Perić

It’s fairly well known that roughnecks working for Imperial Oil in 1947 hit it big at Leduc No. 1, forging Alberta’s oil and gas industry. But it’s not exactly common knowledge that many women — including the men’s English and European war brides — also worked at the rigs in the 1940s and 1950s. These families lived in skid hhacks, small wooden structures that would fit on the back of a truck or train and move from rig to rig around the world.

“Skid shacks were family dwellings that were thrown about rig sites,” says Dr. Sabrina Perić, PhD, associate professor, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology in the Faculty of Arts, and co-director of the Energy Stories Lab. “In 1947, when the Leduc well was discovered, you would have had children running around everywhere and women hauling water and doing laundry and participating in this work.”

These families’ stories have been brought to life with a collaboration between the lab, the Canadian Energy Museum in Devon, and Ingenium, Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation in Ottawa. The new Our Oil History exhibit features an actual skid shack loaded with QR codes as well as a free, 3D-augmented reality app — SkidshackAr — that anyone, anywhere, can download to virtually tour the structure and hear first-hand what it was like in the early days of Alberta’s oil industry. 

“We really wanted to rejuvenate the existing exhibit and use different approaches and technologies that could enhance the user's experience of the exhibition,” says Dr. Jean-René Leblanc, associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History in the Faculty of Arts and co-director of the lab. “Anybody in the world can download this app and place a three-dimensional skid shack in front of them, walk inside and experience the stories through sound, animation and narrative.” 

Energy Stories Lab graduate students Zahra Jafarzadeh and Gerry Straathof played a huge role in developing the app. “Zahra was the animator and Gerry was the developer,” says Leblanc. “The app is very cutting edge. It’s an interactive version of augmented reality that has rarely been used in applications like these.”

The lab worked closely with Dr. Rebecca Dolgoy, the curator of Natural Resources and Industrial Technologies at Ingenium in Ottawa and Danielle Lane, the Canadian Energy Museum’s collections manager and keeper of its “rich archive.” The museum’s partnership with the Devon Historical Society was also invaluable in providing a series of 1940s-era oral histories and records from Imperial Oil.

The lab aims to “contribute first-hand narratives” from people who work in our energy systems. “That’s a voice we don’t hear,” says Perić. “A lot of people talk about Alberta oil and gas workers, but we don't hear a lot from energy workers themselves, and not just oil and gas, but solar, wind, coal, nuclear.”

This new exhibit is part of a broader lab project called Rethinking Roughnecks that explores “a bit of a mythology” around the early days of the energy industry that centers on men. But in reality, Alberta’s early rigs included lots of well-travelled women and children. 

“These families were very cosmopolitan,” says Perić. “Many of them had been in Venezuela and Colombia. Some had been in the Middle East and in Iraq and Iran working for other companies like the British Iranian conglomerates.”