Coral restoration station at Vienna’s Long Night of the Museums
Date of publication: Oct 11, 2022

It was 6PM on Saturday the 1st of October, when the doors of the Natural History Museum of Vienna (NHMW) opened for the special event “Lange Nacht der Museen”, which literally translates to “The Long Night of the Museums”. This is an annual event in Austria, where with a single ticket you can visit any museum or cultural venue for one evening. Being part of the RESTORESEAS team, the NHMW had prepared a “coral restauration station”, called CORAL RESTORe-stATION at the museum’s new multimedia room, Deck50. And I was there to report on it.

Deck50 at the Natural History Museum of Vienna

Art and creative expression have a unique way of communicating and evoking feelings, and can be powerful tools to spark interest in new topics, and bring people closer to a specific subject, like for example coral conservation. That is what the Swiss artists “Biotop der Relevanz” have been doing by creating corals out of clay, aiming to bring awareness to the ongoing devastation of coral reefs around the world. Also, in cooperation with the NHMW and RESTORESEAS, they helped create the concept for the CORAL RESTORe-sTATION, where plaster coral replicas could be painted by NHMW visitors. The plaster replicas were modelled after corals in the museum’s historical coral collection, adding a layer of historical meaning to the project. The replicas were placed on tables next to watercolors and brushes in Deck50, inviting adults and children alike to color them.

Plaster corals ready to be painted (on the left) and visitors at the station painting corals (on the right)

In the wild, shallow-water reef-forming corals are typically colorful, however they can lose their color through a process called bleaching. Bleaching happens when corals lose their microalgae symbionts, called zooxanthellae, which provide them with most of the nutrients they need to survive. So, when previously colorful corals become white, they are on their way to starvation and will likely die. When this happens across large areas, mass coral bleaching can lead to coral mass mortality and the death of entire coral reefs. Coral bleaching induced by ocean warming is today the major threat to coral reefs around the world.

From a metaphorical point of view, giving color to the whitish plaster corals symbolizes the return of zooxanthellae and the corals regaining health. In a way, by painting the corals the visitors are giving life back to the once bleached corals, symbolizing the process of bringing coral reefs back to life.

Real coral skeletons from the Natural History Museum’s historical collection

This station was so successful that before the Long Night of the Museums even started, already dozens of colored corals stood in the station, painted by museum goers during previous weeks. During the “Long Night of the Museums”, people of all ages passed by the CORAL RESTORe-stATION. They would climb up the stairs from the main floor and look around intrigued at the setting. The Deck50 guide would then explain the task at hand. Additionally, once on Deck50’s top floor, they could watch a video explaining the idea behind this art project and the importance of coral reef restoration.

Visitors painting the plaster corals

Each person or groups of persons then got to choose a coral and paint it as they wished. The finished product would then join the rest of the “restored” corals. These will soon be part of a permanent installation at Deck50: a new coral reef created by the visitors of the museum.

Introductory video about the CORAL RESTORe-stATION

The coral painters that visited our station and that I got to talk to, were excited, not only for being able to give wings to their creative imagination, but also for contributing to a collective project and help bring awareness to an important environmental issue. In the end, cooperation and engaged participation are important pillars of coral reef restoration and conservation.

Plaster corals already painted by visitors

Written by Maria Pinto, Communications Officer at RESTORESEAS