University of Manchester and Manchester Museum
Coral: Something Rich and Strange is an exhibition, public programme and community engagement project based on Dr Marion Endt-Jones, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Manchester three-year research project 'A Cultural History of Coral, c. 1850-2010'. The exhibition at the Museum from November 2013 to March 2014 visually explores Marion’s research - juxtaposing historic and contemporary art, new commissions and natural history specimens – exploring the enduring fascination with coral as a material and inspiration for artists, cultures and societies, from antiquity to the present day. Integral both to the exhibition itself, and to Coral’s programme of public activities for babies, families, adults, ESOL, school and student groups, has been a community art project to create Manchester’s Satellite Coral Reef (part of the Crochet Coral Reef project by the Institute For Figuring in Los Angeles). ‘Hyperbolic’ crochet sessions and workshops have been held at the Museum and outreach sessions held at Manchester Eye Hospital, Manchester Dental Hospital, Manchester Royal Infirmary and Trafford General Hospital Stroke Unit. This work has culminated in an exhibition in the Museum - Connecting Communities and Coral.
- The main audiences for this project have been families, adults, communities, schools, hospital patients and staff. As well as existing audiences, new audiences to the museum have also been targeted: art-interest audiences, many of whom may not ordinarily engage with natural history themed exhibitions at the Museum. These included university students and staff from art, humanities and science subject areas; people with an interest in marine biology and marine conservation; divers, snorkelers and ‘oceanophiles’; and community groups with an interest in arts, crafts, fashion, music and/or sustainable living.
- Overall the purpose of the project is to provide public engagement opportunities by:
- - Creating a visually stunning and academically rigorous exhibition which invites audiences to explore the use of coral as a material and symbol across different ages and cultures.
- - Experimenting with the integration of natural history specimens, works of art and cultural artefacts to increase understanding of coral as an organism which bridges the fields of art, science, natural history, myth and religion.
- - Showcasing new and existing work by artists who have been influenced by coral and marine environments.
- - Inspiring the public with a sense of wonder at the beauty and diversity of coral and coral objects.
- - (Through all of the above) foster increased awareness of the urgency of marine habitat conservation.
- - Providing participatory opportunities to explore craft and ecology and well-being.
- The key activities were:
- - free entry temporary exhibition (with sections on myth and mystery, magic and religion, the Natural World, Coral’s decorative appeal, extinction and conservation and including extensive loans of historical and contemporary art and the commissioning of new pieces by artists Mark Dion and Karen Casper)
- - a community art project to create Manchester’s Crochet Coral reef including hospital engagement on display in exhibition Connecting Communities and Coral
- - informal and formal learning activities
- - a website
- - a catalogue
Alongside the exhibition, the museums Health and Culture programme has connected with patients, visitors and staff at Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. The partnership with the hospital is designed to examine some of the needs of the local hospital community, and in particular its access to the extensive collections. Artists and museum specialists have worked closely with nurses, occupational therapists, ward managers and staff from Patient Experience to develop and deliver workshops. The display in the foyer is intended to raise awareness of the value of culture within healthcare and celebrate some of the creative outcomes. Artists have led sessions on the surgical wards, the stroke unit, and in many of the waiting areas within the hospital. Despite the challenges of working in a clinical environment, the project continues to be successful.
- Running the project
- Coral has been delivered by a project delivery team including Museum staff from curatorial, conservation, technical services, learning & engagement, development and marketing teams. Marion was a key member of this group, which ensured that her research underpinned the activities and outputs. The planning of the exhibition and programme has been underpinned by ongoing research and knowledge of the audience, for example ensuring accessibility of exhibition labelling and an audio guided tour. The crocheters, artists, hospital patients and staff directly fed into the content and development of the satellite crochet reef and exhibition. Aspects of the project that worked well included visual impact of the exhibition (designed by Ben Kelly Designs), the integration of contemporary art and natural history specimens and participatory element of the public programme, the Satellite Crochet Coral Reef and Connecting, Coral and Communities project. Challenges have included the reach of the project to some of the specific target audiences (such as divers and oceanophiles) and some elements of the public programme being hampered due to ill health of a key member of staff. Ongoing evaluation of the informal programmes was fed into the ongoing development of programmes and the SWOT analysis undertaken by the Hospital project has been informative for future development of Arts and Health work and partnership with the hospital.