Last week I visited Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea at the Natural History Museum, London. I had high hopes for the exhibition as there’s a certain frustration at seeing the same Hollywood Animal exhibitions at natural history museums over and over again. It’s forgivable to think that museums were nothing but dinosaurs, mammoths and fossil humans (as interesting as they are). Did it live up to high (tide) expectations or was it going to be a wash out? READ ON TO FIND OUT NO MORE RUBBISH PUNS I PROMISE.
The short answer is no. No it didn’t deliver what I was hoping for. The problem with most animals that are ‘off the beaten track’, in terms of not having heads, legs, eyes and arms like us is that they are so alien and unrelatable to us mammals that you either have to go for textbook-on-a-wall interpretation that nobody will read to begin to make any sense of it or sellout with some really impressive specimens. This exhibition did neither.
What I liked
- There’s a section that focuses on Darwin’s coral work and some of his original specimens and notes which was nice to see in the displays.
- Excellent set of videos at the end from museum scientists and conservationists that is worth sitting through a complete rotation of.
- Nice taxidermy grouper! Gotta love a big fish.
- Specimen rich display! Most, if not all, of which were from the NHM collections. A pet peeve I have is when natural history museums don’t draw on their own vast collections for temporary or travelling exhibitions.
- Some really great footage of life on the reef including a really cool reel of reef animals and camouflage.
- The shop. I came away with armfuls of stuff but that doesn’t really count because I’m a sucker for natural history themed books, magnets, models, oven gloves….
What I didn’t like so much
- The digital interactives. There were two interactives in particular. One a fancy schmancy tri-screen display you can zoom around in, another was an Endless Ocean lite type affair where you had a limited time limit to find five reef species. Neither used the technology to it’s fullest, particularly the triple screen interactives. The images are beautiful but it’d be nice to have some way of finding out what at all the crazy reef creatures are.
- Very dry displays. Literally. Even the most enthusiastic coral fan will find museum fatigue setting in at yet another case of lumps of white coral and the odd sad fluid preserved fish. I know that’s what coral specimens and fluid preserved fish look like but I think either showing aquaria species next to living coral (expensive!) or using images would have helped.
- Content lite. Don’t know what a soft coral, sea whip, bryozoan or gorgonian is? You probably won’t be much the wiser after a visit either.
- Lack of narrative. I don’t insist that every exhibition needs a beginning, middle and end but about midway through it just feels like looking at cases of stuff. The ‘cities of the sea’ theme- identifying the bin men, nurses, trouble makers of coral reefs runs throughout but it’s hard to arrange those in a logical feeling order.
- Design stuff. Giant hexagons that slot together strewn about the place (see top photo)? No thanks. Prior to seeing this I’d visited the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A, an exhibition that, in my mind, is very much carried by the exhibition design from impressive sets including a beautiful cabinet of curiosities, a mirror box asylum and an ossuary come Predator trophy room. I’m not really excited by ridiculous fancy dresses but the atmosphere of the exhibition really made an impact. Here the set dressing compounds the dry nature of the specimens. I can still taste the tang of MDF now*.
I don’t want to be too harsh on the exhibition and of course as a museum professional, I didn’t pay directly to enter the exhibition so I’ve got absolutely nothing to complain about but I’d be surprised if we see any more big invertebrate focused exhibitions for a while. I’d have liked to have seen interactives used in a better way and perhaps a bit more on how weird and wonderful coral reef fauna is. Really not easy to accomplish with standard museum exhbition interpretation tools but that was my hope.
FINAL REVIEW IF YOU CAN’T BE BOTHERED TO READ THE REST: Two plastic octopusses out of five.
* Of course it really helps if big fashion houses and Swarovski sponsor the exhibition as opposed to an insurance company (that does actually have conservation chops) but that’s a blog post for another time methinks.