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Volcano meets art: the Bodleian exhibition, Oxford

Thursday, April 6, 2017 9:28
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(Before It's News)

A guest post from geologist and broadcaster Dougal Jerram

It’s more the scene for an old Mk II Jag parked up outside the grand old buildings of Oxford, less the unlikely venue for an explosive display of the Earth’s fiery giants. The Bodleian Weston Library is holding the ‘Volcanoes’ exhibition from 10th February through to 21st of May, and it offers an insight into the artistry of volcanology. With original maps and sketches from some of the world’s most iconic volcanoes, written accounts and some volcanic rocks to boot, the exhibition provides a fascinating look at volcanoes. As a volcanologist I was keen to get along and see the exhibition for myself, and see some of the volcanic and art treasures it has to offer.

With artworks depicting volcanic events and even volcanic posters from popular culture, the way in which volcanoes and man are intertwined is explored. Some of the instruments that we use for measuring around volcanoes, as well as the almost science fiction like silver volcano suit (the very one I personally wore when I abseiled into the bubbling lava lake of Erta Ale, Ethiopia), are also on display, taking the centre stage in the room.

On being asked how the exhibition came about, Prof. David Pyle from the University of Oxford replied;  ‘The opportunity for the exhibition emerged from some conversations that I had with Richard Ovenden (now Bodley’s Librarian) and the head of exhibitions, Maddy Slaven; and we started planning for the exhibition about 3 years ago – before the newly renovated Weston Library building had been completed. We started with the theme of ‘volcanoes’, and in the end felt that this title was still appropriate to introduce the diverse materials in the exhibition.’

I asked David what he thought were the most important things the exhibition had to offer, and he provided a short list of three:

  • a fragment of a carbonised papyrus scroll from Herculaneum, excavated from an ancient library that had been buried in the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius. For me, this makes tangible the link between an ancient repository for knowledge, an iconic volcanic eruption, and the present-day archives.
  • Athanasius Kircher’s ‘mundus subterraneus’ – a 17th century treatise, which includes a global map of the distribution of volcanoes (not shown), an imaginative cross-section of the earth showing the link between volcanoes and the deep interior, and some wonderful cut-away images of Vesuvius and Etna. What struck me about this was the detail and quality of information that people knew about volcanoes 350 years ago.
  • William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei (ca. 1776, and 1779)- with some of the most wonderful gouache paintings of Vesuvius in eruption, and great attention to capturing faithful observations of the ways that volcanoes erupt.

I also inquired as to whether such an exhibition will be seen elsewhere around the country in the future?

‘We have no immediate plans for this, but I am sure that there are elements of the exhibition that could either tour in future; or that could be recreated in the future in other museums’.

So for now you will have to see volcanoes meeting art in the Bodleian Weston Library exhibition, maybe pick up some volcano related books and presents from the museum shop (which helps support the Museum), and marvel at how volcanoes and man have interacted over the centuries.

Exhibition Details

‘Volcanoes’ at the Bodleian Library runs 10 Feb – 21 May


ST Lee Gallery, Weston Library


Weston Library Info Desk: 01865 277094

Opening times:
Monday to Friday 10am-5pm
Saturday 10am-5pm
Sunday 11am-5pm

Admission: Free


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