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Time Traveller: Charles Lyell at work

1 December 2023

The exhibition aims to explore the questions Lyell set out to answer (Image: © University of Edinburgh)

Time Traveller: Charles Lyell at Work is an exhibition featuring the collection of 294 notebooks that belonged to Sir Charles Lyell [1797–1875]. Collaboratively curated by Jim Secord (Emeritus Professor, University of Cambridge), Pamela McIntyre (Strategic Projects Archivist, University of Edinburgh) and Will Adams (Archaeology graduate, University of Edinburgh), the exhibition aims to explore the questions Lyell set out to answer, and how he worked to evidence his theories in an era of imperial exploration and expansion. Many of Lyell’s questions are still relevant, and the ways in which he worked (not always successfully) to answer them can add to our own understanding.

Lyell’s approach was controversial, removing the Biblical flood from serious scientific discussion and encouraging geologists to make use of the vast time scales their research had already established. His book, Principles of Geology, advocated the use of observable causes to explain the past, building on the work of James Hutton and John Playfair. Lyell developed a theory of climate change involving the shifting balance between continents and oceans, which is still influential today.

Although early editions of the book opposed the idea that new species evolve from earlier ones, its extensive discussion of the evolution question opened the way for decades of further debate. As Darwin wrote, “The great merit of Principles was that it altered the whole tone of one’s mind, and therefore that, when seeing a thing never seen by Lyell, one yet saw it partially through his eyes.”

Travelling relentlessly, Lyell spent his life chasing volcanoes; visiting coastal, industrial and heritage sites; exploring strata, caves, waterfalls, quarries, and mines; investigating sightings of sea serpents; and considering human antiquity. The resultant rich data in his archive transports us through time.

Having completed a dissertation on Lyell’s contribution to prehistoric archaeological study, Will Adams has curated five case studies, including a focused study of Lyell’s geological and natural history collecting. Loans from the National Library of Scotland, as well as input from volunteers who have been assisting the cataloguing, shine a light on Lyell’s notebooks, including the different hands that appear within their pages.

On public display for the first time are notes from intimate conversations Lyell had with Charles Darwin before publication of On the Origin of Species, notes and correspondence documenting Lyell’s early investigations of the evidence for human evolution, and unsettling records of his travels through the American South.

The notebooks document Lyell’s visits to America in the 1840s and record his conversations with plantation owners and enslaved women and men. While Lyell opposed slavery, he did not support immediate abolition. The Civil War changed his views, but his notes reveal he always believed there was a hierarchy of races within the human species. As a result, some of the materials presented in the exhibition reflect outdated, biased, and offensive views and opinions due to pervasive systemic intolerance.

Physical collections are reunited with the notebooks for the first time in nearly 100 years. The exhibition features Lyell’s collected fossils, rock specimens, and shells, held by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences’ Cockburn Museum, and School of History, Classics and Archaeology’s Vere Gordon Childe collection, providing an unprecedented insight into Lyell’s previously private ‘laboratory thought-books’ and their pivotal role in his work.

Reviewed by:

Jim Secord

Emeritus Professor, University of Cambridge

Pamela McIntyre

Strategic Projects Archivist, University of Edinburgh

Details: Time Traveller: Charles Lyell at Work

The University of Edinburgh, Main Library Exhibition Gallery

Until 30 March 2024