Fresh off our respective returns from the Caribbean, the Oxford and UEA contingents of the Curating Crises team turned their attention to the matter of props.

Thanks to our ambitious exhibit design and space constraints we were going to have to get a bit creative with storage solutions and construction techniques…time to embrace our inner Blue Peter presenter!

How does one stick volcanic ash to wood?

What’s the best way to cut a hole in the side of an oil drum?

How do you restore a 20th century brass trumpet device to its former glory?

These were all questions we were about to find the answers to, some through trial and error, some via twitter-based crowd-sourcing and others thanks to the expertise of our artist collaborators Output Arts…


First up? An ash covered cupboard!

In our “SENSE” zone, we are encouraging visitors to consider what it would be like to live among the volcanic ash of an eruption. We will be making use of an ash covered phone and radio created for the Soufrière Blow project which feature volcano-themed calypso songs and interviews with residents of Montserrat about their experiences with ash after the eruptions of the 1990’s and early 2000s. Naturally, our ash-covered objects cannot stand in isolation, so our cheap storage cupboard needed a makeover. It turns out, incorporating actual ash collected from Montserrat in 2018 with a cement-style base can be quite tricky. Repeat batches resulted in a rainbow of grey shades on our cupboard, some touching up with paint and additional ash was needed to get the final effect!

On top of the ash coating, the cupboard needed wheels and a neatly painted slogan on the side…Bridie found herself carrying out complicated* maths to find the appropriate letter widths and climbing atop a picnic bench to ensure a neat finish…keeping a steady hand was a challenge, luckily she had plenty of years of under-the-microscope crystal picking as practice!

*really way more complicated than it should’ve been.


Next? Perret’s trumpet….?

Early on the team thought it would be cool to have at least a partial replica of Perret’s listening trumpet, thoughts of how to construct a partial trumpet were interrupted by the announcement that David had already purchased a full size antique version in preparation! All it needed was a spruce up in the Oxford workshops, the addition of a handle and a wooden base onto which we placed a battery powered Bluetooth speaker so we could play rumbling earthquake sounds through it and give visitors a chance to experience one of Perret’s earliest volcano-sensing inventions!

And the pièce de résistance?

A replica of the eruption stratigraphy of St Vincent, featuring real rocks collected in March 2023, some extra-hard accretionary lapilli and one incredibly satisfying arrow!

Way back in January, the team decided we needed a real-life stratigraphic column on hand to help visitors make the connection between what goes up (in the ash cloud) and what comes back down (layers of ash, scoria, rocks and debris). The rock record is a key piece of evidence we use to reconstruct not only the eruption styles of unobserved eruptions, but also the sub-surface processes occurring in the magma on its way to the surface that explain why we saw those eruption styles.

With this in mind, we made sure to collect a sequence of well-constrained samples that matched the stratigraphy detailed during field campaigns by Jenni Barclay and Paul Cole in 2021 and 2022.

Next came construction…

A wooden board was cut to size, sanded, and painted a lovely ashy grey. Next, photos of the deposits, and sketches made in the field were carefully studied to identify the key features of each unit. Many of the units had layers of finer and coarser material at different heights, some were coarser than others altogether and some contained fragile accretionary lapilli. Accretionary lapilli are small balls of ash that form when a magmatic eruption occurs in the presence of water, this can be water below the surface, due to rainfall or when hot ash interacts with sea water – the latter two almost certainly being the main source of water in the St Vincent eruption.

These balls of ash are incredibly fragile and would definitely NOT stand up to inquisitive fingers at the exhibition…a sturdifying solution had to be found! (yes, we made that word up)

Luckily, volcanologists are very active on twitter and often have to preserve fragile samples. The advice was to try using the resin often applied in thin-section sample preparation. Luckily for the Sensing Volcanoes exhibit, UEA has a very helpful lab technician in Bertrand Leze, who rose to the challenge and alongside Bridie Davies, spent two afternoons painstakingly dipping accretionary lapilli in resin, rolling off the excess and then leaving the samples carefully to set overnight.

Many accretionary lapilli were sacrificed to the tweezer gods in this endeavour…we thank them for their services to science communication!


With the accretionary lapilli sturdified, construction of the column began in earnest. Samples were sieved and stuck down in the desired configuration, larger clasts were sliced to get a flat face and dried out for maximum stickiness and a lot of ash and grit made its way onto the floor. Without its labels, the column looked positively artistic! But, this is a scientific endeavour after all, so Bridie had to once again put on her steady hands and add the unit labels, scale bar and eruption dates.

To top it all off, 5 holes were drilled in the side to allow a dowel-mounted arrow to be moved up and down the column – to coincide with eruption phases depicted on the Imaginarium during the exhibition. The St Vincent stratigraphy was a labour of love and will be returning to St Vincent with members of the UWISRC after the Royal Society exhibition, where it can continue to be appreciated by members of the public for years to come!

With the props complete (mostly) it was time for a test run of the Exhibit…

Would the printed panels match up?

Just how smelly would our “smelly rocks” actually be?

Have we ACTUALLY bitten off more than we can chew?

To see all our props in one place, head to the Sensing Volcanoes stand at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition from the 4th – 9th July – free entry, no booking required!