New exhibition charts science and wonder of volcanoes over the centuries

Volcanoes at the Weston Library, 10 Feb-21 May

16 January 2016

From fire-belching mountains to blood-red waves of lava, volcanoes have captured the attention of scientists, artists and members of the public for centuries.

Summit crater photo of St Vincent, Bodleian Libraries

A new exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries uses a spectacular selection of eye witness accounts, scientific observations and artwork to chart how our understanding of volcanoes has evolved over the past two millennia.

Image of painting of an eruption of Vesuvius on 9 August 1779, from the supplement to the 1779 edition of William Hamiltonís Campi PhlegraeiThe exhibition examines some of the world's most spectacular volcanoes including the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius, one of the most catastrophic eruptions in European history, and the 19th century eruptions of Krakatoa and Santorini, two of the first volcanic eruptions to be intensely studied by modern scientists.

Today, satellites monitor volcanic activity and anyone with internet access can watch volcanic eruptions live in real time. In the past, volcanic eruptions were described in letters, manuscript accounts and early printed books, and illustrated through sketches, woodcuts and engravings. Many of these fascinating accounts are preserved in the Bodleian's historic collections and will be on display in Volcanoes at the Weston Library.

The human encounters with volcanoes that are traced in the exhibition range from Pliny the Younger's account of the dramatic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE to early Renaissance explorers who reported strange sightings of mountains that spewed fire and stones. Also explored is how scientific understanding of volcanoes and the Earth's interior have developed over time, from classical mythology and early concepts of subterranean fires to the emergence of modern volcano science, or volcanology, in the 19th century. The exhibition brings together science and society, art and history and will delight visitors of all ages.  

The exhibition is curated by David Pyle, Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford, whose research uses historical sources to Image of papyrus scroll buried in he 79 CE eruption of Vesuviusimprove our knowledge of past volcanic activity and to shed light on what might happen in the future at young or active volcanoes.

It will feature treasures from the Bodleian Libraries, some of which have never been on public display before. In addition, the exhibition will feature items on loan from the Natural History Museum in London and from the University of Oxford's Museum of Natural History, the Museum of the History of Science and Magdalen College.

Highlights of Volcanoes include:
  • Fragments of 'burnt' papyrus scrolls from the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, which were buried during the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius
  • The earliest known manuscript illustration of a volcano, found in the margin of a 14th century account of the voyage of St Brendan, an Irish monk who travelled across the north Atlantic in the 6th century
  • A stunning illustration of the Earth's subterranean fires from Athanasius Kircher's Mundus Subterraneus, an influential 17th century work which proposed that volcanoes were created where the Earth's internal fires escaped at the surface
  • Spectacular 18th century studies of Vesuvius, by Scottish diplomat and early volcanologist William Hamilton who wrote one of the first descriptive monographs of an active volcano
  • 18th and 19th century weather diaries and paintings, that capture the distant effects and freak weather conditions caused by major volcanic eruptions in Iceland and Indonesia
  • 'Infographics' from 19th century natural historians Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Daubeny whose work has contributed greatly to our current understanding of volcanoes
  • Lava and rock samples, maps, lecture notes and scientific equipment from 19th century volcanologists and explorers
Cut-away image of Mount Etna, 1637, published in Athanasius Kircherís Mundus Subterraneus (1665), Bodleian LibrariesDavid Pyle, Volcanoes curator

The exhibition curator David Pyle said: 'Humans have lived with volcanoes for millions of years yet scientists are still grappling with questions about how they work. This exhibition features historical representations and ideas about volcanoes that are captivating and dramatic but most importantly these works provide scientists today with valuable insights into how these enigmatic phenomena behave. Looking back at history can help us learn valuable lessons about how best to reduce the effects of future volcanic disasters.'

Richard Ovenden, Bodley's Librarian

Richard Ovenden, Bodley's Librarian said: 'Volcanoes are one of the most extraordinary marvels of the natural world and have fascinated us for millennia. This exhibition draws on both the rich collections held at the Bodleian and cutting edge scientific research to demonstrate the power and fascination of volcanoes through time.'

An exciting programme of talks and events, including family-friendly activities, will be held over the course of the Volcanoes exhibition, which will be held at the Bodleian's Weston Library. For more information visit www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/whatson.

An infographic taken from Humboldtís Voyage aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent published in 1810, Bodleian Libraries

The Weston Library is one of the newest cultural destinations in Oxford and has welcomed more than 1.1 million visitors since opening to the public in March 2015. The Library has also won a string of architectural awards and was shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize 2016.

An accompanying publication to the exhibition, Volcanoes: Encounters through the Ages will be released by Bodleian Library Publishing on 10 February 2017, and is available for pre-order at £20.00 from www.bodleianshop.co.uk.

Back to top