"It was all terror, horror and sublimity, blackness, suffocating gases, scorching heat, crashings, surgings, detonations." Isabella Lucy Bird (nineteenth century English explorer)
Starting with the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD and tracing a timeline of volcanic activity to today, Volcanoes at the Weston Library explores the development of our understanding of this geological phenomenon. From eyewitness accounts to artefacts and equipment, the exhibition shows the shift from chance encounters in explorers' journals to a more systematic exploration of volcanoes from the early nineteenth century onward. It is a fascinating dive into the archives of the Bodleian, with several intriguing nuggets of information pulled out.
Separating out the exhibition by individual eruptions, Volcanoes tells a story of destruction and rebirth, focusing on the cyclical nature of volcanic activity. The exhibition draws strands that highlight the cultural impact of volcanoes on song, poetry and cinema as well as in areas like the weather (volcanoes can be pretty devastating in this regard). It is full of fascinating anecdotes, including the belief that the fiery lava lake of Masaya was filled with molten silver and gold, as well as the tale of an explorer who was lowered into a volcanic crater in a basket. The implicit comparison of older approaches with modern means of investigating volcanoes is interesting, since volcanoes have always represented a great challenge for exploration. We are unable to enter them but instead must observe them from the ground, from space and from the surrounding area. This exhibition should inspire people to carry on this exploration, highlighting the gaps we still have in regards to our knowledge of volcanoes.
The exhibition doesn't just draw from items in the Bodleian but also from those under private ownership, as well as various departments of the University. One of the standout items on display for me was The Eruption of Krakatoa by William Ashcroft. In this journal are hundreds of paintings of the afterglow of this eruption and it is beautiful. It is a treat to be able to see this and many other artefacts for free.
The exhibition is at its strongest when focusing on the human experience of volcanoes and the shock waves they send through the communities affected: the only drawback is that it doesn't do this enough! Before we enter the ST Lee Gallery there is a video that shows modern day communities who live with active volcanoes and it is a compelling area to look at, given the rich agricultural bounty that follows volcanic eruptions. It is easy to forget that volcano eruptions can be healthy for the planet; the destruction they bring gifts the earth with the materials needed to grow food and sustain life. Disappointingly, this strand of the exhibition is underdeveloped, as it explores the academia surrounding its subject matter with far greater interest.
Volcanoes at the Weston Library is a wonderful delve into the history of volcanoes and the science which has developed alongside it. The exhibition looks at a everything from the period when volcanoes were, for explorers, rarely seen 'fire mountains', to the modern study of them that has gleamed more information than was ever thought possible. It is chock-full of insights and anecdotes and is worth an hour of your time. The exhibition continues until 21st May at the Weston Library and entry is free.