‘An art show or a science exhibit’: UGA Exhibit on Coral Displays History, Ecology of Ocean Creatures

Submitted by Camie on

Part history lesson, part ecological treasure trove, a new exhibit on display at the University of Georgia Special Collections Libraries explores the marine lives of coral and the expeditions and efforts to document the curious creatures over centuries, from Darwin to modern day.

The exhibit, entitled Sunken Treasure: The Art and Science of Coral Reefs, was developed by renowned ecologist James W. Porter, who collected one of the most extensive assemblages of coral in the world throughout his 50-year career as a marine ecologist. The specimens, now housed in the Georgia Museum of Natural History, are displayed alongside rare and valuable books dating back to the 1500s to showcase the scientific efforts to understand coral reefs, which cover less than one percent of the Earth’s surface but house nearly one-third of all marine plant and animal species, protect land from damage from hurricanes, and provide both food and income for a half a billion people.

“Putting these two natural history and antiquarian book collections together has never been done before. It makes for a gorgeous exhibition,” said Porter, whose book collection has been acquired by the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, one of UGA Libraries’ three special collections units. “One can view this display as either an art show or a science exhibit. Really, it’s both.”

Porter’s exhibit takes visitors under the sea through a variety of photographs captured as part of his field research, illustrating the changes to the animals over time due to climate change and other factors. Yet the display remains hopeful through the comparisons of coral skeletons beside the centuries-old artists renderings in books by prominent scientists such as Charles Darwin, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, Carl Linnaeus, and Ernst Haeckel. The exhibit also includes Porter’s personal encounters with coral, including the revival of several species after a destructive hurricane in the Florida Keys. 

White coral skeletons on display“The coral collection is especially unique. Because of climate change, coral reefs world-wide are dying at alarming rates. It would be impossible, for legal, ethical, and even practical reasons to make such a collection. In many places the corals required to make such a collection do not exist,” Porter said. “To have the (coral and book) collections stay together, and go to a place that values them, is every collector’s dream. It was my dream. Now this dream has been realized.”

Porter, who is Meigs Professor of Ecology emeritus at UGA, served as chief scientific advisor of the Peabody, Emmy, and Sundance award-winning documentary Chasing Coral. He will present a lecture "The Past, Present, and Future of Coral Reefs" at 6 p.m. on Thursday, February 15 in the auditorium of the Special Collections Building. The event, which is free and open to the public, is co-sponsored by UGA’s Odum School of Ecology.

In addition, children and members of the community are invited to a special Family Day event themed on Sunken Treasure. The free Saturday, April 13 event, hosted by the Hargrett Library, will be held from 1 to 4 p.m.

A closeup od a display of a white and red coral used in jewelry and ceremonial pieces in a display case along with historic books on the topicSunken Treasure: The Art and Science of Coral Reefs will remain on display through July 3 at the Russell Building Special Collections Libraries on the University of Georgia campus. This exhibit was made possible with support from the Stephen E. Draper Center and Archives for the Study of Water Law and Policy. 

The UGA Special Collections Libraries galleries are open to visitors for free from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, with extended evening hours until 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For more information or to schedule a tour, visit libs.uga.edu/scl.