Exhibition | Seeing Coal

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on August 22, 2021

Title page of James Hutton, Theory of the Earth (Edinburgh, 1795) with plate 4 of volume 1 unfolded to show a depiction of a geological formation.

James Hutton, Theory of the Earth, with Proofs and Illustrations
(Edinburgh, 1795)

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Though focused on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the online component of the LCP exhibition begins with James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, with Proofs and Illustrations (Edinburgh, 1795). For the much wider arguments of coal’s significance for the industrial revolution—with important stakes for the history of science, economic history, and various forms of material culture, particularly textiles—see Margaret Jacob, The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850 (Cambridge UP, 2014); for one economic historian’s response to the book, see Cormac Ó Gráda, “Did Science Cause the Industrial Revolution?,” Journal of Economic Literature 54.1 (March 2016): 224–39. More recently, for the topic generally, see Ralph Crane, Coal: Nature and Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2021). CH

Seeing Coal: Time, Material, Scale
The Library Company of Philadelphia, 3 May — 28 August 2021

Curated by Andrea Krupp

Printed materials from the 19th and early 20th century attest to coal’s ubiquity. Today, coal has practically disappeared from Philadelphia’s visual and cultural landscape, though it is still extracted, traded, and consumed worldwide. Seeing Coal looks at Pennsylvania anthracite coal, and raises questions about the significance of its visible and invisible presence in our world. Through historic images, material specimens, poetry and visual art, coal is presented as a material that can help us re-think our relationship with Nature and Time.

It is 300-million-year-old life matter transformed into carbon. It performs a vital function—storing carbon underground. It is rich with meaning and portent, and it deserves our attention. Human lives are ephemeral, yet our actions in the here-and-now shape an unseen future. Through its dynamic materiality, coal connects us to Deep Time and Nature. It reminds us of our own Earth origins and helps us re-vision how to live on a fragile and finite planet.

The exhibition was curated by Andrea Krupp, Library Company Conservator and visual artist.


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