Corals have proved, historically, difficult to classify. Living in underwater colonies, these tiny spineless creatures with stony skeletons are actually animals, despite more than a fleeting resemblance to rocks or plants. The unique strangeness of coral inspired Dr. Marion Endt-Jones to curate Coral: Something Rich and Strange at Manchester Museum, one of the outcomes of her three-year research project ‘A Cultural History of Coral, c. 1850-2010’. Dr. Endt-Jones, a Lecturer in Art History and Visual Studies at The University of Manchester, spoke about her experiences of the exhibition-making process in a recent Research Seminar.
Coral, with it’s category-defying nature and multitude of significances, lends itself well to a cross-disciplinary exhibition. The show includes coral specimens from the Museum’s zoology collections, as one might expect, but also includes fossils, coins, devotional objects, jewellery, textiles, decorative art and fine art – both historic and contemporary. Some of the objects in the exhibition, like coral itself, refuse to fall neatly into one area. The exquisitely detailed Victorian glass models made by father and son Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka illustrate the close relationship between science and art. They have been shown in a contemporary art exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery and in the touring exhibition Curiosity, and here they are shown in both biological specimen and decorative art contexts.
This blurring of taxonomies is evident throughout the exhibition. The exhibition design, by Ben Kelly, is based around a central reef-like plinth for displaying three-dimensional objects, with two-dimensional pieces on the walls surrounding. Endt-Jones was concerned that this could cause a separation, creating two quite different exhibitions, and so has sought to disrupt this in various ways. The shape of the plinth means that visitors naturally move in a zig-zag around it, encouraging them to see objects in the context of work on the adjacent walls. She has created numerous visual juxtapositions, such as the coral rattle on display mirrored in the painting opposite of a little boy holding one. Most interesting are the ways in which objects and artworks are displayed in unexpected ways. A sea fan coral has been framed and sits on the wall amongst historic paintings, whilst an abstract artwork by the Surrealist artist Max Ernst is propped up on a plate stand amongst the coral specimens.
Cabinets of curiosities are a clear inspiration, and one that the curator has a marked interest in, having explored the subject in her PhD thesis. It is fantastic to see artist Mark Dion’s cabinet-inspired ‘Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy’, created for the Museum in 2005, on display again for this exhibition, especially learning that there had been talk of dismantling it. It faces the Coral exhibition space, and the artist has created a new sculpture and a series of drawings relating to coral for the bureau. Endt-Jones spoke of her hopes of drawing in an art audience to the Museum for the exhibition, and of the current vogue for curiosity in contemporary art reflected in shows such as Curiosity and The Encyclopedic Palace of last year’s Venice Biennale.
Endt-Jones spoke about the practical aspects of creating the exhibition, from the under-defined role of the external curator in an institution, to the writing of funding applications and loan letters, to the heart-in-mouth moment when you realise the measurements for a display case have been misread as millimetres rather than centimetres. She reflected also on the things that did not happen: she had wanted to display a live coral tank, partially as a riposte to the critique of museums as repositories for dead things, but sadly budgetary constraints, as well as the sensitivity of coral, made this impossible. The talk was an illuminating insight into the many considerations that go into making a temporary exhibition, and particularly a complex cross-disciplinary exhibition such as this.
Coral: Something Rich and Strange, 29 November 2013 – 16 March 2014, Manchester Museum