The current Bodleian exhibition reveals the deep cultural impact of history’s big eruptions, says curator Professor David Pyle as we showcase some of the key exhibits in a ravishing gallery.

Volcanoes – from catastrophe to the sublime

By Lanisha Butterfield

Few might connect volcanic eruptions with the 19th-century arts and with weather change, but Volcanoes, the current exhibition at the Weston Library, could change all that. Oxford University’s ScienceBlog met with Professor David Pyle (pictured below right), volcanologist and the exhibition’s curator to find out more about how he is challenging people’s perceptions of volcanoes, and how they impact upon the world around us. Also below, our Oxford Today gallery offers a vivid glimpse of some of the key exhibits.

What was the inspiration behind the exhibition?

About three years ago, Richard Ovenden, who is now the Bodleian’s Librarian, and Madeline Slaven, its head of exhibitions, floated the idea of doing something on the theme of volcanoes. This sounded like an exciting opportunity and we took it from there.

My work tends to focus on the geology of volcanoes, but recent projects in Santorini, Greece and St Vincent in the Caribbean have looked at other records of volcanic activity. People’s stories and official accounts of the effects of volcanic eruptions tend not to be included in formal science evaluations, but can tell us a lot about their human impact. The exhibition was as a great opportunity to share this perspective and surprise people.

What kind of insights can these records offer?

The colonial records of the St Vincent eruption of 1902 are extraordinary. One thing the colonial government was good at was keeping records, and this includes correspondence between the Governor, chief of police and other high-level officials in London. The detail you can extract from official first-hand accounts — in terms of what actually happened, and how the eruption impacted communities — opened my eyes to the wealth of information available on how people have coped with and responded to volcanic activity in the past.

Volcanoes – from catastrophe to the sublimeHow did you decide what to include?

I looked through around 400 objects in total, and the final exhibition features 80. Everyone had a role to play, and I spent three years burrowing through the Bodleian archives. As a volcanologist, I was in my element and found the volume of material incredible. Handling old books and manuscripts evokes a tangible connection between you now and then. It’s an immense privilege to hold an object with such tremendous history.

I’m not sure what other people expect when they come to an exhibition called volcanoes, but I imagine people would envision vivid colours and descriptions of violent eruptions. The vivid colours are carried through the exhibition in its design, but the art pieces selected show that volcanoes have had an entirely different impact socially. Instead of just focusing on explorers’ experiences, which are well documented, we have included elements that shed light on tourists’, travellers’ and everyday people’s encounters with volcanoes — even those who came across them by accident.

Can you tell us about the structure of the exhibition?

There are 10 differently sized cases in the exhibition — small, large, long, 3D, et cetera. Of course, we have the Bodleian’s printed materials (books and manuscripts and so on) and physical rock samples from the Museum of Natural History. But it also features things that you might not expect — Victorian poetry, art, film posters, matchbox lids and even tourist trinkets.

Which display are you most pleased with?

The volcano weather exhibit surprises people. An eruption takes place thousands of miles away, but its impact is often felt across the globe, through climate change. From fiery sunsets, to torrential storms, they have had great impact on the weather of the natural world. On the one hand there is the devastating immediate impact on the people living around the eruption, but the effect socially, on the other side of the world, was entirely different and often quite sublime.

Volcanoes – from catastrophe to the sublimeAn after-effect of the eruption of Mount Krakatoa in 1883 was spectacular sunsets across Europe. These sunsets were the inspiration for some of the most celebrated poetry of the time, such as Tennyson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and stunning watercolour paintings (such as these by William Ascroft, right, from The Eruption of Krakatoa, 1888).

People might not connect art and volcanic experience, but the sheer volume of material inspired by them tells us a lot about international communication in the 19th century. The international telegraph network meant telegrams could be sent quickly across continents. Whether people experienced eruptions first-hand, or heard about them on the social grapevine, they clearly developed their own feelings about them and expressed them in memorable ways.

Do any of the pieces tell us anything particularly interesting about how perceptions of volcanoes have changed?

The weather diaries are fascinating, and show the impact of climate change physically and socially, at a time when no one really understood what it was.

One from 1783 details the after-effects of an eruption in Iceland, which triggered a hazy smog so thick it could almost chock you. The diaries build a picture of an unbearably hot climate, complete with violent thunderstorms and an unusually red sun. Fast forward a few hundred years and we recognise these unusual weather conditions as air-pollution-induced climate change. But at that time no one really knew about it, or had an explanation for the unusual weather. The explanations came later.

Another [weather diary] focuses on the impact of an eruption in 1816, which became known as the year without a summer in Northern Europe. In the Northern US, conditions were so bad it was dubbed ‘Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death’. From the same period we have two pages of the diary of Mary Shelley, who of course wrote Frankenstein. She is writing from Switzerland, in July 1816 — one of the worst-affected places. Making these connections goes some way to explaining the morose tone and scenery depicted in the book, and the literary impact of eruptions.

Interview continues below the gallery…

What is your favourite piece from the exhibit?

One of the most significant elements is the oldest— a carbonised scroll from Herculaneum, located in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. It is a piece of papyrus that contains a book that would have been rolled up and stored in a library in Herculaneum. It was buried by and preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. When the library was excavated in the late 1750s, the King of Naples gave away some of these scrolls to passing dignitaries, one of whom was Prince George of England, who then gifted the scroll to the Bodleian Library.

There is something quite special about holding a volcano exhibition in a library, where the oldest item in the show is also from a library, and was preserved because of a volcanic eruption.

How did you come to be a volcanologist?

I saw my first volcano aged seven, when my family lived in Chile for a year, and I have been obsessed ever since. It’s a place where you can’t escape mountains, and there are volcanoes everywhere, including my favourite, Villarrica (photographed below by David Pyle). I’ve been back as adult, and fulfilled my childhood dream of climbing the summit and peering into the crater.

Volcanoes – from catastrophe to the sublime

What is your proudest achievement to date?

An academic’s career is long and potentially lonely, so you have to celebrate everything along the way. I don’t look back on anything that I have done with rose-tinted spectacles because there are so many things that I want to do next. 

I have been very close to the exhibition for a long time, and now we have finally opened it is delightful to see other people enjoying and responding to it.

What is next for you?

My next project focuses on better telling and sharing people’s stories and experiences of volcanoes. Storytelling is a powerful way of engaging with people, communicating how volcanoes behave, and starting conversations about how society can prepare for an unexpected eruption. The official records of the St Vincent eruption are a great testament to events, but they are not easily accessible to people actually living on the island, so impossible for them to learn from.

In collaboration with researchers from the University of East Anglia, who are leading a project on strengthening resilience in volcanic areas, we have been running workshops on the island, speaking to residents about their own experiences, and sharing our research.

Like many other Caribbean islands there are much more pressing needs — annual hurricane season being one of them. The volcano hasn’t actually erupted for forty years, so we were expecting it to be low on their list of priorities, but actually people have been really engaged and eager to think about it — particularly the difference between dealing with an eruption today and forty years ago.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

It is a huge privilege to be able to work in places that are so captivating, visiting them with a purpose other than just travelling there for the sake of it. There are 60 or 80 volcanoes that erupt in any year, and often they are totally unexpected, so there is always something new to learn and look at.


  • Volcanoes is running at the Bodleian Weston Library, Oxford, until 21 May.

  • In addition to an  Oxford webpage, Professor David Pyle has a volcano blog.


All images courtesy of the Bodleian Library except Villaricca by David Pyle. This article is reproduced, slightly edited, from Oxford University’s ScienceBlog, with permission.


By Frank Robinson

60-80 volcanic eruptions per year!! Thank you for highlighting their importance for climate change, more important surely than the car exhausts which politicians use as an excuse for raising taxes.

By RHFindlay

60-80 volcanoes per year may be regarded geologically as in all likelihood a steady-state system that has existed for a very long time, as opposed to our population growth since the beginning of the industrial revolution which has entailed an exponential increase in the consequent burning of hydrocarbons for energy, not to mention production and rapid spread of the dreaded motor-car. That is, there would be likely an equilibrium between output of volcanic greenhouse gases and their absorption by the Earth's systems, in contrast to our output of greenhouse gases which have overloaded the pre-human Earth systems for their absorption, hence the assorted changes to climate, oceans and global ice budget that we are now witnessing.

As for resilience in living with volcanoes, the author could do well to pop over to Papua New Guinea, in particular to the Island of New Britain where there are several active volcanoes those at the now famous town of Rabaul around where we may witness the onset in a few years of an epidemic of silicosis from the fine vitreous ash that I have seen floating delicately in the air..

By Helen P

"surely" - er, no. This took all of 20 seconds to find, from the US Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory website: "globally, volcanoes on land and under the sea release a total of about 200 million tonnes of CO2 annually", whereas "the global fossil fuel CO2 emissions for 2003 tipped the scales at 26.8 billion tonnes."
And don't forget the cooling particulates released by some volcanoes.