To be fair, it is the Natural History Museum. And that appears to dictate the whole approach to coral reefs which visitors to this new exhibition get: something that is focused entirely on natural history.
Undoubtedly, the museum has an impressive collection of historic reef specimens – with over 250 on display – including some species of coral collected over 100 years ago. These are accompanied by some of Charles Darwin’s own paperwork, such as an annotated map of the Caribbean, and an 1842 copy of The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, written before he turned his attention to On the Origin of Species.
However, there is a disappointing lack of dynamism and imagination throughout the exhibition, with reefs presented as locations from which static and uninspiring pieces of dead coral come from. Indeed, visitors who have never been to a real reef would be forgiven for coming away thinking of them as artefacts from the past, in a similar category to the dinosaur skeletons down the hall.
Arguably the centrepiece of the exhibition is the 180o ‘panoramic virtual dive’. Visitors stand in front of large images of reefs provided by exhibition partner Catlin Insurance, which are made interactive via the ability to pan around – and zoom in and out of – the panoramic snapshots. The experience is enjoyable, with the images bright and colourful, but otherwise does little to grab attention. Once again, the representation of the reefs is too static.
Real coral reefs are busy and proactive, constantly changing and in motion, bursting with life. And while the accompanying exhibit descriptions do attempt to make this point (as well as the ‘Secret Cities’ part of the exhibition title), the funeral-like presentation of the specimens does nothing to back up this perspective. Reefs are hugely important to both our present and our future, and yet are displayed here as objects from the past.
Towards the end of the exhibition, there is a small tank where living fish interact with coral, which goes some way to showing what an actual reef looks like, while a film all about the Catlin Seaview Survey emphasises the importance of monitoring coral reefs as a way of tracking climate change.
If only most of the exhibition had the same sense of life and celebration of reefs as these final exhibits, instead of mourning them as if already lost to the world.
CORAL REEFS: Secret Cities of the Sea is on at the Natural History Museum, London, and runs until 13 September, 2015. Adult tickets £10, concession tickets £4.50, family tickets £24, free for members. For more information, visit nhm.ac.uk.