Oil giant considers UT to hold its archives

Exxon Mobil Corp. historical collection valued at $3.5 million

By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
Thursday, August 21, 2003

Exxon Mobil Corp.'s vast historical archives, including some of the papers of John D. Rockefeller and correspondence to the Wright brothers and Charles Lindbergh about the properties of motor oil, could wind up at the University of Texas.

The company confirmed Wednesday that it has approached UT-Austin about housing the collection, valued at $3.5 million. Discussions are also under way with other universities and museums.

"We would certainly prefer that it would all go to one institution," said Tom Cirigliano, a spokesman for the company. "Texas is the home of Exxon Mobil, and these are Exxon Mobil artifacts. We have a rich history here in Texas. So from that standpoint, UT would be one of the natural places to look at."

The archives of the world's largest publicly traded oil company would be a prize for the university, which itself was built on oil wealth. Oil revenue from UT's West Texas lands, as well as proceeds from the investment of that revenue, have created a multibillion-dollar endowment benefiting the UT System and the Texas A&M University System.

Santa Rita No. 1, the oil well that produced the first gusher for the Permanent University Fund, occupies a prominent spot on the UT-Austin campus.

The Exxon Mobil collection includes posters, graphics, publications, videotapes, more than 1 million photographs and about 7,000 three-dimensional artifacts such as signs and gas pumps.

Part of the material pertains to the creation in 1870, and the subsequent expansion, of the original Standard Oil Co., the corporate ancestor of Exxon, Mobil and other major oil companies. The material includes early and unpublished histories, significant legal opinions and correspondence signed by Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil.

The letters to Wilbur and Orville Wright and to Lindbergh deal with the properties of oil used in their airplanes. The Wright brothers made the first successful sustained power flights in a heavier-than-air machine, in 1903. Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, in 1927.

"It's sort of mind-boggling in its richness," Don Carleton, director of UT's Center for American History, said of the collection, which he examined in a basement of the former corporate headquarters of Mobil in Fairfax, Va. Mobil and Exxon merged in 1999. For example, he said, the collection includes all of the companies' television ads since the 1950s.

Exxon Mobil would not identify the other universities and museums it has approached. However, Carleton said it was his understanding that UT's competition includes Duke University, Southern Methodist University, the University of Delaware, the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress.

One plus for UT is that it has sizable holdings concerning the oil industry; among them are the papers of Ross Sterling, a governor of Texas and founder of Humble Oil Co., a corporate ancestor of Exxon Mobil.

In addition, Exxon Mobil is headquartered in Irving and operates refineries, pipelines and wells in Texas.

The collection probably would not include material concerning the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Some of the litigation concerning that spill, the worst in U.S. history, has not been resolved -- notably, a $4 billion punitive damages award that the company has appealed.

rhaurwitz@statesman.com; 445-3604