A Year of Coraling and Coralling

International Year of the Reef

The Aquarium at the Horniman Museum and Gardens dates back, in one form or another, to the early 1900s. In more recent times the Aquarium has been home to Project Coral; where pioneering research is being undertaken in coral spawning. The project team, led by Aquarium Curator Jamie Craggs, is successfully developing in-vitro fertilisation techniques for captive corals and they have instigated the first successful spawning of captive coral in the world. Their research will further scientific understanding of the impact of climate change on coral reproduction and has potential to serve as a method of restoring damaged coral reefs.

Coral spawning taking place at the Horniman Museum Aquarium, as part of ongoing research by Project Coral under lead scientist Jamie Craggs. © Horniman Museum and Gardens and Jamie Craggs

Being the home of such an important coral conservation project made it an obvious thing to do to get involved with International Year of the Reef. 2018 marks the third IYOR (International Year of the Reef), and to celebrate it, the Horniman Museum is hosting a year of special events, exhibitions, online content and family activities to highlight both Project Coral, and the ongoing plight of coral reefs around the world. As Project Coordinator of the IYOR programme at the Horniman, my role was to help set up and run six projects devised by a team of collaborators. The project was extremely multidisciplinary; utilising the natural history collections, the live aquarium exhibits, art installations, dance performances, and collaborating with external researchers from around the world.

Coral reefs are under immense pressure from a variety of sources. Both over-fishing and destructive fishing methods (such as cyanide poisoning and dynamite fishing) kill large numbers of fish and other species that inhabit reefs. We encroach on the reefs themselves with recreational activities and coastal developments such as the palm tree shaped hotel built on (misleadingly named) ‘reclaimed land’. Pollution is a global problem, with plastics being a main contender, but what people don’t always understand or perhaps accept is that a plastic bag blown into the sea from an overfull bin on a street corner in London, can end up choking a sea turtle thousands of miles away. The biggest issue we’re all facing is of course climate change. Changes in environmental conditions are causing phenomena such as Ocean Acidification and Coral Bleaching. Bleaching is where the algae that enable coral to thrive, and in fact give them their colour, can’t cope with the increase in temperature and skedaddle. Sometimes coral reefs can recover from these bleaching events, other times they can’t. There are more subtle effects of climate change too; turtle embryos develop into males or females depending on temperature. If the world heats up, even by only a few degrees, we could end up with single sex populations, which I think we can all agree will find it hard to breed.

This palm tree shaped hotel resort was built on (misleadingly named) ‘reclaimed land’. © Leroy Chiao.

The Programme

The main message we wanted to get across was that everyone visiting the Museum, no matter how far (geographically) removed from coral reefs we are, has an impact on these ecosystems. Every day. We wanted to let people know how exactly, people going about their business in London means damaging coral reefs, and what can we do about it. So we devised a programme of events, and also adopted the odd thing that was by happy coincidence, in tune with our message and perfectly timed for IYOR. The six projects were:

  • Coral: Fabric of the Reef – Exhibition
  • For the Love of Corals – Film commission
  • Digital Programme – Reef Encounters
  • Museum Late – Adult only evening event
  • Aquarium Interpretation Refresh
  • Family Learning Programme

Coral: Fabric of the Reef – Exhibition

Taking inspiration from both the Aquarium and the Natural History collections at the Horniman Museum, artist Karen Dodd created a beautiful exhibition celebrating the beauty of coral and coral reefs. The clever title Coral: Fabric of the Reef, refers to both the physical nature of reef systems in which both living corals and coral skeletons make up the foundations, as well as the specific materials with which Karen worked in order to produce this thought provoking exhibition. The colourful coral models and impressions show a stark contrast with those that represent the fragility of the reef system. Karen says “I am responding to these extraordinary interdependent communities, drawing correlations between the materials and processes I use and the life, growth and degradation taking place on reefs today. The sculpted structures with their multiple forms; folded, twisted, and intricately bound and stitched, have been made from blankets that are visually corresponding to the bleaching occurring in our oceans. My use of fragmentation, holes/gaps, felting, stitch and shadows all serve to reflect further the loss, deterioration and possible regeneration of the fragile coral”. The exhibition, Coral: Fabric of the Reef, is on until September, if you would like to pop by for a visit.

Three works of art from Karen Dodd’s exhibition; Coral: Fabric of the Reef. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

For the Love of Corals – Film

Artist Sonia Levy has been working with Project Coral to create a film that showcases the groundbreaking achievements and subsequent ongoing work of the team at the Horniman Aquarium. The aim of the film is to tell Project Coral’s fascinating story and to explain its workings. Filming is ongoing and once editing will be completed, the project will be shown on site at the Museum Aquarium as interpretive material.

Sonia Levy is also working on an artist film and installation titled For the Love of Corals, a cinematic enquiry in response to Project Coral. It will include footage from Project Coral as well as shots of artifacts from the Horniman Museum’s collections, such as the 19th-century botanist Anna Atkins’s Photographs of British algae cyanotype impressions. For the Love of Corals will culminate in an exhibition opening this October at Obsidian Coast, Bradford-on-Avon. For the Love of Corals is produced with the support of Obsidian Coast and Fluxus Art Projects as well as the in-kind support of the Horniman Museum.

Digital Programme – Reef Encounters

By working in collaboration with external researchers, we have created a blog series called Reef Encounters, focusing on in-situ coral reef conservation. We have published interviews with a number of researchers from around the world and are accompanied by stunning images that capture the essence of their work on coral and coral reefs. One of the blogs we have hosted on our website is by Adriana Humanes who works as a marine ecologist, researching ways to increase the longevity of corals in aquaria, in order to facilitate ex-situ research in coral conservation science.

Adriana Humane is a marine ecologist working on captive coral longevity. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Evening Event – Under the Sea Late

Every quarter, the Horniman Museum and Gardens runs a ‘Museum Late’, which is an adult only evening event. Each one of these events has a different theme and on 17th May this year we held the Under the Sea Late in honour of International Year of the Reef. Talks and tours of the Aquarium and Natural History Gallery explored life beneath the waves. The coral reef theme ran throughout the evening, with exclusive installations, performances, face-painting and craft workshops. The event was a huge success and judging by the number of people whose faces had been transformed into fishes, or had seahorses on their cheeks, the message of coral reefs was at least in some ways, definitely taken home.

The Museum was transformed into an underwater haven. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Family Learning Programme

There were a number of different, and some ongoing, strands of the Family Learning Programme, including trails, activities, and two curator-led coral reef activities sessions. Being the curator that led the latter, I’ll go into more detail about this element of the family programme. We had three activities out in order to cater for different ages. The most basic was colouring (everyone likes colouring), then we had a number of natural history specimens and families were encouraged, with the help of a staff member, to decide which of these animals lived on coral reefs, and which didn’t. Some had obvious answers, like the grey squirrel, others were more tricky. The third activity which I facilitated myself, encouraged people to think a little more deeply. Again we had a series of natural history specimens out for people to touch, and I asked them which of these animals (from all manner of habitats) relied on coral reefs in one way or another. The answer, of course, was that everything is affected by the health of coral reefs, either directly or through knock-on effects. My favourite thing on the table was the mirror as it facilitated some great discussions about how and why all humans rely on a healthy marine ecosystem, even if we live nowhere near it. Yes, including vegetarians and vegans.

With regard to the issues coral reefs are facing, I found that families I spoke to seemed to be divided between those who had seen programmes such as Blue Planet, and those that hadn’t. Fans of Blue Planet and the like were, actually quite incredibly, up to speed with… pretty much everything. For those not in that category, Finding Nemo seemed to be a useful way to connect people with coral reefs, but either way, it confirmed to me just why museums and family sessions such as this are so important to the world.


The International Year of the Reef programme has gone very well and, although we’re over half way through the year, there a number of things still to come, for example the For the Love of Corals films and exhibition, and the final installments of Reef Encounters (such a great name) on our blog. If you are interested in ways in which you can help coral reefs, or if you like- in ways in which you can alter your behaviours slightly in order to decrease our negative impact on them, I recommend the International Year of the Reef website. I’ve also set out a helpful list for you:

  • Take public transportation or carpool
  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
  • Use energy-efficient appliances and lightbulbs
  • Use less water
  • Use and dispose of household and garden chemicals responsibly
  • Consume sustainable seafood
  • Use responsible tourism companies that respect marine environments
  • Join beach clean-up programmes

Written by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

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