A Thousand Words for Weather, Jessica J Lee & Claudia Molitor,

Senate House Library 22nd June – 25th March 23

The plan around visiting this exhibition was based on meeting up with some old uni friends to celebrate a special birthday.  We’d studied Art History together at Birkbeck, part of the University of London, so a visit to Senate House Library and a wander around Bloomsbury seemed a perfect way to do that.

A Thousand Words for Weather takes place across three floors of Senate House Library, the library of the University of London, itself celebrating 150 years since it’s foundation this year.  As a student at Birkbeck it was possible to access the Senate House Library with its extensive Art History collection so it was fun to go back on a return visit. 

It’s always been, how shall I put it, labyrinthine, and this has not changed, with the smell of musty books in the air and intertwined staircases and lifts that don’t go to all levels but then somehow do.  We started on the 4th Floor and found the start of the exhibition, books drawn from the library collection that reflect on the weather.  This was fascinating, I really liked the way that a selection of books that would, to be quite honest, nowadays be sitting in obscurity, possibly in storage, were brought together around the theme of weather and given new perspectives.

The items are wide and varied, one is James Glen’s Answers to Queries from the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations about the Colony of South Carolina, 1747-48, written in beautiful script, as the labelling advises, this extract shows how climate, enslavement and economy were bound up together in the pursuit of trade.  Reading the extract certainly shows that the concerns were not for the workers or the effect on local economy, let alone ecology, but for how much could be made through local exploitation.  

James Glen’s Answers to Queries from the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations about the Colony of South Carolina, 1747-48

In a different vein, Walter Crane’s book for his daughter Beatrice Crane and her book, 1880, is a charming one.  He illustrated the book for Beatrice to show seasonal weather changes and their effects on plants.  There’s quite a sweet illustration of a woman grappling with the usual rainy English weather in June, nothing new there then!   

Beatrice Crane and her book, 1880

Continuing with art but in a more reflective mood, is the Sketch Book of Harriet Lewin, 1810-14, on the page opened, Lewin reflects on spaces and memory.  She talks about how the area sketched, Lake Trasimene, in Italy, bathed in sunshine, was the site of war and death and how nature and weather can repair and cleanse those memories.  It’s a really touching piece.  

Sketch Book of Harriet Lewin, 1810-14

Other books are full-on weather, Francis Bacon’s Natural and Experimental History of Winds, 1648 was about the early days of scientific meteorology, whereas The Newest, Best and Very much esteemed Book of Knowledge, by Wilde in 1764 relies more on weatherlore. 

This was a great scene setter and we continued to the beautiful Periodicals Reading room, where there were listening posts to listen to the sound installation created by the group of poets who collaborated on the sound piece.  I don’t know if it was the fact that we were there as group of three and therefore listening to the piece felt awkward as we all found our own headphones and looked at each other in a puzzled way, or, whether it was that for such a long piece there was nowhere comfortable to sit and enjoy the it, but it really didn’t work for any of us. 

In addition, there was the sense that we were in the university library and as such couldn’t be discussing our thoughts.  The piece was due to play out loud during lunchtime so that may have made for a different experience but it was only 12:00 and too long to wait around for.

We continued on to the 5th floor and quite honestly struggled to follow the green arrows to the installation areas, as I’ve said, the library is quite a maze in itself and the signs were really not clear enough, or perhaps the areas were not marked out as clearly as they could have been.  We did finally find one part on a window shelf looking out from the library, I imagine quite a contemplative area to sit and experience the sound installation.  However, the space was occupied by a student working, we asked if this was part of the exhibition to which she said yes and continued working on her laptop.  We walked off, my friend remarked that she had been a little passive aggressive, to which I replied, actually it was aggressive, aggressive!

Totally lost, up and down staircases, asking students if they knew where further installations were, we headed back to the entrance point of the library.  The library assistant there was very helpful and pointed us towards the last area on the 6th floor.  This was a public area and I think I heard birds but yet again it was all a bit underwhelming.

We gave up and headed off to lunch!

As you can probably guess, I was disappointed by this exhibition, it’s a pity as I don’t think the issue is the content so much as the delivery.  I love site specific art, particularly where artists are allowed access to familiar cultural sites to give voice to other possibilities.  In fact, my MA dissertation was based on artists working with museum collections.  In a one sentence sum up of my conclusion, artists bring another dimension and way of looking at collections that can show them in a very different light.

The tenets for all those expectations are here in this exhibition, the introduction through the selected books is great, so many different facets of weather and how it has played a part in all areas of society, from man’s attempts to understand weather patterns for the production of crops and travel, to more frivolous thoughts of wanting the rain to stop a bit!  But it gets lost on the sound installation, I was looking forward to hearing lots shared about weather, it’s diversity and universality but trying to listen in an uncomfortable position, and on your own, was off putting. 

Equally, while I get the connection to the library as a place of words, perhaps the library itself was not the best place for a sound installation.  We tried to be respectful of the library space, we have been students ourselves and the last thing you need is people galumphing about the place while you’re trying to get your head around some difficult bit of reading.  Perhaps our student’s aggressive-aggressive was a sign of resistance.

Do I sense resistance?

It’s a pity, I do try to always support artists, I’m not interested in trying to do down what I know will be based on a lot of work and creation but I do think that some adjustments need to be made for those experiencing this installation, especially since it’s on until March, right through term times. 

In any case, the signage needs to be better, we were familiar with Senate House Library, other visitors won’t be, there needs to a much clear indication of the route and once reached much more demarcation to make it clear and comfortable seating to listen to a long piece.  The press for the installation needs to indicate that it is best experienced as a solitary pursuit or to specify more clearly that the sound installation is only on publicly at certain times.  Perhaps this could be increased to twice a day, maybe in the evening too?

And as for resistance?  Is there a feeling among students that the installation is causing disturbance? If that’s the case perhaps visitors can be advised that they need to be quiet and, I guess, once again, that this needs to be a solitary, even quiet, experience.  Finally, could there not be a room given over that visitors can sit in comfortably and listen to the sound installation publicly, on a loop, all day?

Just my thoughts, I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying the installation for themselves but I would advise that you are prepared to listen to the sound installation on your own or attend at the public time.  I don’t feel I can fully review the sound installation as I didn’t listen to all of it, so I will return and try again and may well take in the exhibition celebrating 150 years of the library as well, which sounds very interesting.

Rita Fennell

Gallery Tart

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