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A Merman in New York

Helen Merrett, our Collections Coordinator and Loans Registrar, tells us about our now international merman and what it takes to get him from A to B.

Our famous Merman is on his travels again, having just made his debut in the new World Gallery Curiosities section of the Perspectives Wall. This time he’s gone international. The Merman has not travelled abroad since he was transferred to the Horniman in 1982 from the Wellcome Collection.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic was a hugely popular exhibition at the British Library when it opened in October 2017, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The exhibition featured star objects from JK Rowling’s personal archive, including original drafts and drawings by JK Rowling and illustrator Jim Kay, both on display for the first time. 

The exhibition has now toured on to the New York Historical Society Museum and Library to celebrate the 20th anniversary in the USA. 

Merpeople are an important part of the exhibition story. There is focus on the authorial process and the development of Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, showing that published versions can often be different from the original draft concepts - merpeople were originally going to feature earlier then the fifth book.

When the merpeople appear in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, rather than the classical mystical image of beautiful enchanting creatures, they have grey skin, yellow eyes and broken teeth, similar to the style of the Horniman Ningyo Merman.

  • The Horniman Merman on his travels, The gorgeous Horniman merman
    The gorgeous Horniman merman

Because the Merman has been so popular (this is his eighth time out on loan since 2011), he now travels with a mount made by our Exhibitions Team that works for different displays. For all objects going out on loan our Exhibition Technicians work with a Conservator to determine the best shape to give support to the object.

The Merman has a very unusual balance point, and is also very fragile. It is very important we sent him with a mount we know gives the right support, and this also makes the install at the borrowing venue much more straightforward. We discussed this with New York Historical Society to ensure our mount worked with the exhibition design, so accurate measuring was crucial. 

  • The Horniman Merman on his travels, The merman on his special mount
    The merman on his special mount

All objects are assessed by a Conservator before they go out on loan. The Merman required a small repair and clean to ensure he was stable for travel abroad.

Then he had the all-important photoshoot so we could capture his condition before he left the Horniman. Our Conservation Officer Charlotte put together a very detailed condition report so that we can see if there are any changes whilst he is travelling and installed elsewhere.

  • The Horniman Merman on his travels, A merman photoshoot
    A merman photoshoot

Packing is another important part of any object going out on loan. A special tray and box had previously been made by Charlotte in our Conservation Team for travelling in the UK, but this needed some slight tweaks to give extra support to the merman for travelling across to America.

  • The Horniman Merman on his travels, On the left, his old packaging, on the right, his swanky new travel arrangements
    On the left, his old packaging, on the right, his swanky new travel arrangements

I was lucky enough to escort the Merman on his travels again, ensuring that he arrived safely, and was unpacked and installed at the New York Historical Society. Naturally, the Merman was an instant hit amongst staff and the other couriers there to install the exhibition.

Everyone wanted to know the history of the Merman and a few pictures were requested of the star. He has been displayed with a beautiful book from the American Museum of Natural History and a manuscript from the British Library, showing historic illustrations of mystical creatures including mermaids. It was fantastic working with the British Library and New York Historical Society on this exciting exhibition, and that the merman has become part of the story of where magic and myth began.

  • The Horniman Merman on his travels, Helen installing the merman in New York
    Helen installing the merman in New York

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on at the New York Historical Society from 5 October 2018 until 27 January 2019.

The merman will be back in the World Gallery in February 2019.

Celebrating the arts

Disguise. Layers. Extraordinary and ordinary. Natural and man made. These are just some of the themes that art students come to explore at the Horniman.

  • Drawings by Artsmark students, Drawings by Artsmark students
    Drawings by Artsmark students

Artsmark celebration week ran from 8 – 12 October and is a national celebration of arts and culture. Artsmark is the creative quality standard for schools, accredited by Arts Council England. Artsmark provides a framework for teachers to plan, develop and evaluate arts, culture and creativity across the curriculum.

The Horniman is an Artsmark partner, so we support schools to achieve their Artsmark status and schools can visit us as part of their award.

During Artsmark celebration week, Sacred Heart School from Camberwell brought their year 11 GCSE group to explore the theme of disguise. Luckily we have around 3,000 objects in the handling collection that pupils can touch, photograph and draw to build up their sketchbook as part of their GCSE topic.

  • Drawings by Artsmark students, Drawings by Artsmark students
    Drawings by Artsmark students

We explored camouflage in animals, looking at a zebra skin and stoats that change colour with the time of year. The pupils also looked at textiles, puppets and masks for inspiration for their final piece. As part of their visit, the students also explored the new World Gallery to look for further examples of disguise.

Pupils from Langdon Park Secondary School from Tower Hamlets also visited during this celebration week and their theme was ‘Layers’. Pupils explored clothing, seed pods, gourds and even an armadillo carapace.

We celebrate the arts all year round at the Horniman with handling sessions for schools for art, music, textiles and puppets. Find out more about Artsmark, and Horniman school sessions. Check out more artwork by schools visitors.

  • Drawings by Artsmark students, Drawings by Artsmark students
    Drawings by Artsmark students

Seeing things in Black and White

Black and white, the two most basic colours that make up our universe are also those imbued with the most symbolism to humanity.

Let there be light

Diametric opposites, the contrast between black and white has fascinated us from our earliest moments. In almost all creation myths throughout human history, gods have separated the light from the dark, the white and the black, a division that has come to represent all the dichotomies that continue to fascinate us to this day – light and darkness, day and night, order and chaos, life and death.

Even in their composition, the two could not be more different. Black is formed by either a complete absence or total absorption of all visible light, while white is composed of all visible wavelengths of light. For many centuries it was actually believed that white was the basic building block of all colours but in 1666 Isaac Newton demonstrated that in fact, the reverse is true.

  • Isaac Newton, Isaac Newton proved that white light was a composite of other wavelengths by separating it with a prism
    Isaac Newton proved that white light was a composite of other wavelengths by separating it with a prism

Not so blæc and hwīt

Etymologically, both black and white come from Old English sources, the former being derivative of blæc while white has developed from hwīt. Like most words for colours in the English language, this means that the origin of these words is Germanic as opposed to Latin as is the case with Romance languages.

While English and European languages have only one word to describe black and white, several non-European languages such as Japanese and Inuit have multiple words that can describe different hues of white. Sanskrit actually has different words for specific types of white such as the white of teeth, the white of sandalwood, and the white of cow’s milk.

Black and white all over

You would think that a black and white colouration wouldn't make much sense for animals but it's more common than you think and can help for a number of reasons.

Animals that live in snowy regions such as the Arctic or high mountains almost exclusively sport white fur as a means of blending in with their surroundings which is useful for both predator and prey. You are far less likely to come across an animal that is purely black in colouration and the most famous example, the black panther, is actually a genetic mutation of leopards and panthers. An excess of melanin leads to a darker coat which has its own advantages when it comes to stalking prey explaining the continued existence of these offshoots.

  • Black Panther, Leopards can't change their spots but panthers can hide them, Pixabay CC0
    Leopards can't change their spots but panthers can hide them, Pixabay CC0

Animals that sport a combination of black and white are some of the most well known and include pandas, zebras, and penguins. It is often asked why these animals have evolved to have such an unusual combination of colours, especially as you think it would make them stand out.

Scientists still aren't totally sure what the answer is. In some cases, it might be to help them blend with their surroundings regardless of the weather, or it may even be to help other animals identify them. Badgers, for example, may sport white stripes so that even in the darkness of a burrow, predators will recognise them and be deterred from picking a fight they may not win.

Black is the new black

Although these days it is increasingly common to wear black and white clothes casually, for generations black and white have been used to mark special occasions or to show importance.

An austere black is something we have grown accustomed to seeing sported by figures of authority since the medieval period. Judges across the world often sport black gowns, and politicians are also commonly dressed in black, suggesting to us a seriousness, solemnity, humility, and clarity is at play in their thinking. From the 14th century onwards, it even became increasingly common for monarchs in Europe to favour black garments over more ostentatious colours that had previously been favoured.

Around the world though, white is typically the colour of a bride's dress during a wedding although this only became a trend Europe and the Americas following Queen Victoria's decision to wear a white gown during her own wedding. Prior to this, brides would often simply wear their best clothing regardless of colour, now though white is ubiquitous with weddings. The reserved nature of black has also made it the colour of mourning in the Western world since the Roman period, although in Africa and Asia it is more common that white is worn when attending funerals. 

  • Queen Victoria, Although her wedding dress popularised white gowns Queen Victoria is most recognisable for the black outfits she wore during her long period of mourning for Prince Albert
    Although her wedding dress popularised white gowns Queen Victoria is most recognisable for the black outfits she wore during her long period of mourning for Prince Albert

In the 19th and 20th century, black became an increasingly fashionable choice when it came to clothing. No longer simply suggesting melancholy or seriousness, black began to be viewed as a sign of elegance and sophistication. Men's formal attire for parties or ceremonies was and remains black and white, but with the creation of her "Little Black Dress" in 1926, Coco Channel made a black dress indispensable for women's wardrobes, famously saying, "A woman needs just three things; a black dress, a black sweater, and, on her arm, a man she loves."

Throwing up the white flag

In the realm of politics, black and white are not colours that are often adopted by the mainstream. The colour black and a black flag have been the traditional symbols of anarchism since the 1880s. In the middle of the 20th century, black was also adopted by a number of fascist political parties and both the paramilitary wings of the Italian National Fascist Party and British Union of Fascists were known as the “Blackshirts”.

During the political tumult of the 19th and 20th centuries white was often associated with the cause of monarchism due to the white background of the House of Bourbon of France. The White Army which was primarily composed of monarchists and liberals opposed the socialist Red Army during the Russian Civil War.

White though is most famously associated with the cause of pacifism and peaceful resistance. White flags have been used as a symbol of surrender on the battlefield since the Roman period in Europe and the Eastern Han Dynasty in China. These connections, have seen it become the colour adopted by pacifists the world over, for example, the White Rose group, a non-violent resistance group of students who opposed the crimes of Nazi Germany.

  • anarchy-8265_1920, The austere and visible nature of black and white make them a popular choice in political movements, Pixabay CC0
    The austere and visible nature of black and white make them a popular choice in political movements, Pixabay CC0

Reef Encounters: Laura Puk

This month as part of our Reef Encounters series we spoke to Laura Puk, a PhD student at the University of Queensland, who is researching how damaging microalgae are spreading across coral reefs.

What is your typical day?

That depends a lot on whether I am in the field or working in the office. When I’m in the field - which can often be for weeks or months at a time - we’re often out on the water for the better part of the day. After coming back home, we need to clean our dive equipment, take care of samples, input the collected data, or work on all the pictures taken.

When I’m in the office my day is very different and much more computer-based. I either work on the data collected during my field trip, read papers, write, or do all the little things that come up on the side.

When did you first know you wanted to work in this area, and how did you get into your work?

I’ve wanted to be a marine biologist for as long as I can remember. My interest in coral reef research began when I took a gap year after my undergraduate degree and helped monitor coral reefs in Madagascar.

  • Laura Puk 01, "I've wanted to be a marine biologist for as long as I can remember."
    "I've wanted to be a marine biologist for as long as I can remember."

What inspires you in your work? 

The unbelievable diversity of life and intricate interactions between marine organisms. There’s still so much to discover.

What would your message for the future of reefs be?

I think coral reefs have a chance if we don’t lose hope and act now. Coral reefs are in grave danger and the coral reefs of the future may look different to what we know. However, if everyone puts in an effort we may be able to preserve these incredible ecosystems and the services they provide to people. 

  • Laura Puk 02, "I think coral reefs have a chance if we don't lose hope and act now."
    "I think coral reefs have a chance if we don't lose hope and act now."

What’s your favourite creature on the reef, and why?

That’s a difficult one. I sort of have a soft spot for rabbitfish, probably because of their ability to feed on algae and because rabbitfish pairs look out for each other.

  • Rabbitfish, "rabbitfish pairs look out for each other", Leonard Low/CCBY2.0
    "rabbitfish pairs look out for each other", Leonard Low/CCBY2.0

Sharks also still get me. When I first see them my heart rate goes up, but when you watch them calmly swimming along, it’s oddly relaxing.

What kit do you use?

Until recently I used a Sony RX 100 with an underwater housing, but I just got a housing for my Olympus om-d e-m 5 and am super excited to start playing around with it.

Who’s your ‘reef hero’ – someone doing great work or advocacy for the future of reefs?

I actually don’t have a proper ‘reef hero’. I admire Jane Goodall, even though she’s worked on chimpanzees not coral reefs. She went to Africa in the 1950s and 1960s as a young woman to become a scientist in a society where that wasn’t an easy journey to make. Since then she’s worked for decades to promote conservation in every field and inspired thousands and thousands of people around the world.

Around the World in 80 Objects Part Four

 Our Around the World in 80 objects tour has come to a close. We've travelled through Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, and at last, we're back in Lewisham.

Every day on our Twitter for 80 days we've been posting a new object that you can see in our World Gallery as we navigated a route around the world.

Find out how our journey came to an end as we followed in the footsteps of Phileas Fogg and celebrated human creativity, imagination, and adaptability around the world.


 

 



























Ask A Curator 2018

What would you ask one of our Curators?

  • Blue Morpho Butterfly specimen, Blue Morpho Butterfly specimen
    Blue Morpho Butterfly specimen

For this year's #AskACurator day, three of our staff - Emma-Louise Nicolls (Natural History), Margaret Birley (Musical Instruments) and Wesley Shaw (Gardens) - agreed to answer questions from tweeters all over the world. So, what was discussed? Their answers ranged from parasitic plants to good doggos and musical sand.

See some of the questions and responses below:




Read all their answers on our Twitter Moment.

Preserving History

Danielle Andrew Lynch has been volunteering in our Archives to see if being an Archivist is the career for her.

  • Invitation, An invitation from Mr F.J Horniman to the public to visit the Horniman Free Museum, from the Horniman Museum Archives Press Cuttings Scrapbook. The invitation indicates that the Museum will remain open until 9pm on Tuesday 26 December 1893., Horniman Museum and Gardens
    An invitation from Mr F.J Horniman to the public to visit the Horniman Free Museum, from the Horniman Museum Archives Press Cuttings Scrapbook. The invitation indicates that the Museum will remain open until 9pm on Tuesday 26 December 1893., Horniman Museum and Gardens

In my final year of university I decided to become an Archivist.

I’ve always had an interest in history, and being able work with history every day seemed like a fantastic career choice.

To me, history is typically seen as something we learn about at school or university, and it is often considered a hobby. But after visiting several archival repositories and interacting with other heritage professionals, it made me realise just how important the preservation and conservation of history is.

Without the reminders of the events of the past in the form of physical objects, it is difficult to recognise how things have changed in the present, and how they will continue to change in the future. As a result, this experience has furthered my ambition to become an Archivist.

Following my graduation, I began researching how one goes about getting into archiving. Having discovered that cataloguing is one of the main facets of the profession, I applied to several institutions. Alongside working at the Emery Walker Trust in Hammersmith, I began volunteering at the Horniman Museum and Gardens as a Cataloguing Volunteer based at their Study Collections Centre from June until September 2017.

My initial project was to catalogue individual descriptions of press cuttings within the Horniman Museum Press Cuttings Scrapbook (dated 1884-1901). The process of cataloguing can be lengthy, but it is essential for keeping an accurate record of the objects held in heritage institutions, as well as making information accessible for researchers.

  • Article from archives, Article titled Portrait Gallery of the Munificencies, Mr. Horniman, of Hornimans Museum dated February 1891, from the Horniman Museum Archives Press Cuttings Scrapbook, Horniman Museum and Gardens
    Article titled Portrait Gallery of the Munificencies, Mr. Horniman, of Hornimans Museum dated February 1891, from the Horniman Museum Archives Press Cuttings Scrapbook, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The press cuttings detailed a lot of the history of the early collections within the Horniman, and I thought it was brilliant that they kept records of this information. Working with the scrapbook not only gave me an introduction to cataloguing, but I also learned about the handling and preservation of heritage objects. The scrapbook, for example, was kept in a temperature controlled environment to ensure that it remained intact in between uses. Also, it needed to rest on a cushion whenever it was being used.

In September, I switched to a different project: The Adam Carse Cataloguing Project. The objective was to catalogue the correspondence, research notes and image archive of Adam Carse, an author and musician, who donated his collection of 350 musical instruments to the Horniman in 1947.

This project helped me to develop not only cataloguing skills, but also my ability to research publications, as well as relevant individuals and institutions, in order to create comprehensive research materials for future researchers. Additionally, whilst working on this project, I had the great opportunity to digitise some of the documents that I came across in the Adam Carse collection.

  • Diagrams, Hand drawn diagrams of four different types of recorder from the Musikhistoriska Museum in Stockholm from the research notes of Adam Carse, circa 1945 , Horniman Museum and Gardens
    Hand drawn diagrams of four different types of recorder from the Musikhistoriska Museum in Stockholm from the research notes of Adam Carse, circa 1945 , Horniman Museum and Gardens

Working as a volunteer at the Horniman has been a great introduction in working in a museum archive. I have had the fantastic opportunity to work with some really interesting materials, as well as being able gain invaluable experience in cataloguing which will feature as a part of my future career.

Plastic bag charge to raise funds for Project Coral

As of today, the Horniman will be charging 5p for the use of plastic bags in our shop in a bid to reduce plastic waste, and raise funds for Project Coral.

Having committed to replacing single-use plastics in our Café earlier this year, the Horniman is now looking into other ways to reduce the amount of plastic waste we produce. 

One of our longer-term aims as an organisation is to remove plastic bags from our shop and we are currently looking into alternatives. However, in the meantime, we will be introducing a 5p charge on plastic bags to encourage people to use reuseable bags.

The 5p raised from each plastic bag sales goes directly to support Project Coral, an innovative coral reproductive research project led by the Horniman Aquarium with international partners.

Together we are conducting ground-breaking work on coral reproduction and investigating ways to help save reefs around the world.

At the Horniman, we recognise our responsibility to help lead efforts to reduce plastic waste and continue to seek ways to do so.

Simply Red

What do you associate with the colour red? Danger? Love? Lust? Revolution? Red is a colour that defines often contradictory ideas and it has fascinated us from our earliest times on this planet.

Red in tooth and claw

It’s very common to find red in the natural world and the colouration can be caused by a variety of things. Most obvious perhaps is our own red blood which is caused by the oxygenation of haemoglobin in red blood cells. Iron present in haemoglobin reflects red light making our blood seem red. It is very common for iron oxides to be the source of reds in the natural world, most prominently the planet Mars is red due to a coating of iron-based dust on its surface.

Plants get their red colouring from a pigment called anthocyanin. Anthocyanins are responsible for colouring plants red, purple, and blue, depending on their pH level. They give fruit and vegetables like tomatoes, raspberries, and strawberries their colour, and also influence the shades and hues of flowers such as poppies. Anthocyanins are used in photosynthesis just as chlorophyll is but it’s thought that by not giving plants green colouration it can keep herbivores away.

  • Ladybird, The red colouring of this ladybird wards off predators by telling them they're poisonous if eaten, Pixabay CC0
    The red colouring of this ladybird wards off predators by telling them they're poisonous if eaten, Pixabay CC0

It is less common to find red in the animal world, with many of the creatures we would label as “red” actually being orange in hue. There are, however, many insects, frogs, and snakes that have red exteriors. Often this is to warn off predators by highlighting the fact many of these species are poisonous either through their bites or when eaten.

Reudh, reudh wine

The connection between humans the colour red is one that is almost fundamental to our existence. Red is one of the three colours that make up the RBG model of how humans perceive the world (find out more about that in our blog on the topic). As red is at one end of the visible spectrum of light it is rare among mammals to be able to see it, many animals such as dogs cannot tell the difference between red and green for example. Primates, however, are capable of perceiving the colour which it has been suggested is so that they can tell if certain fruit has ripened enough for consumption.

Red is also one of the earliest colours to appear in human art with our ancestors potentially making use of it as far back as 700,000 years ago. An abundance of iron oxides in nature such as ochre and hematite, which are easy to find, means that even our most primitive of ancestors would have been able to produce red dyes with ease. Having ground these minerals into dust or pastes they would have coloured their bodies or used it to create artworks such as the cave paintings in the Cave of Altamira in Spain. 

  • Cave painting, Some of the earliest art in human history was made using red ochre, Pixabay CC0
    Some of the earliest art in human history was made using red ochre, Pixabay CC0

It might not shock you, therefore, to learn that red is an ancient word, its origins, in fact, being from the Proto-Indo-European word “reudh”. As the common ancestor of Indo-European languages, this meant “reudh” would have entered languages as diverse as Sanskrit, Manx, and English.

Red and dead 

As a vibrant primary colour, red often has important connotations in various religions across the globe. In the Shinto religion of Japan entrance gates to shrines called "torii" which are considered entrances to sacred and profane places are painted vermillion. It is believed to have the power to resist and expel evil which is a belief also held by the Buddhists of China who paint their temples red for just such a purpose.

  • Cardinal, Red is this cardinal's colour, Pixabay CC0
    Red is this cardinal's colour, Pixabay CC0

In Europe, red has become closely associated with the Catholic church with cardinals and the pope often adorned in red robes. This use of red is to remind congregants of the blood of Christ and the spilled blood of the martyrs of the early church. The connection to Christ likely led to the adoption of red by European royalty too. It is still common to see royalty adorned in red cloaks as a symbol of their legitimacy and power.

Talking about a revolution

In the past 200 years, red has become a colour often linked to revolution and left-leaning politics. During the French Revolution, red flags became a rallying point as a symbol of protest and a celebration of martyrdom. In the 19th century, socialists would adopt the red flag as their own and the anthem "The Red Flag" was penned by Irishman, Jim Connell, as a call to arms. These days it may be the case that politically we associate reds with communist revolutions in Russia and China, but left-wing parties in Britain and much of Europe retain their connection to the colour. 

  • Kustodiyev_bolshevik, Boris Kustodievâs work "Bolshevik" is an example of how the red flag is associated with socialist revolution, Public Domain
    Boris Kustodievâs work "Bolshevik" is an example of how the red flag is associated with socialist revolution, Public Domain

Rembrandt to Rothko 

Artists have long been fascinated by the colour red as it draws the eye and evokes such strong emotions. Red can evoke ideas of passion and love and yet for every positive connotation, there is a negative one. Passion and love can just as easily be viewed as lust and temptation or sin. Courage or bravery goes hand in hand with danger. Red robes, dresses, and blood can be seen throughout the canon of art history, but perhaps the most defining use of red in art comes from Mark Rothko's work in the 20th century. Rothko's work so often would take the form of a simple block of red paint, perhaps of a number of shades or hues, on a large canvas. For Rothko, colour was "only an instrument" he used "in expressing human emotions tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on." All of which are emotions one can express with red.

  • Rothko, For Mark Rothko, colour was "only an instrument in expressing human emotion"., Pixabay CC0
    For Mark Rothko, colour was "only an instrument in expressing human emotion"., Pixabay CC0

Put on your red shoes and dance the blues

Given everything we've just been exploring it's no wonder musicians are still obsessed with the colour red. Check out our Spotify playlist on the colour and let us know if we've missed anything off. 

Reef Encounters: Dr Dirk Petersen

For the latest installment of our Reef Encounters series, we spoke to Dr. Dirk Petersen, the founder and Executive Director of SECORE International, a leading nonprofit organisation bringing like-minded people and organisations together to give coral reefs a future. 

What is your typical day?

Unless I am on a field trip, I am spending most of my day at the laptop in my office in Bremen with correspondence and conference calls.

Calls to Australia and the Pacific region are in the morning, those to the USA and the Atlantic region are in the afternoon and sometimes in the evening. I'll spend a lot of times addressing all kinds of budgets, policies, and research and education programmes.

During my travels, I visit our office in Miami, meet with partners and funders or simply enjoy a dive with our staff at one of our field sites. Keeping involved in the underwater work means a lot to me, even if it is just joining the collection of coral gametes during a night dive or exploring one of our research or restoration dive sites.

  • Dr Dirk Petersen, "Keeping involved in the underwater work means a lot to me even if it is just joining the collection of coral gametes during a night dive", Dr. Dirk Petersen, (C) Paul Selvaggio
    "Keeping involved in the underwater work means a lot to me even if it is just joining the collection of coral gametes during a night dive", Dr. Dirk Petersen, (C) Paul Selvaggio

When did you first know you wanted to work in this area, and how did you get into your work?

While studying for my Masters in Biology at Munich, I got the opportunity to work with coral larvae in an aquarium environment. These little critters were absolutely fascinating to me and a great inspiration to start exploring sexual coral reproduction.

When I did my PhD at the University of Duisburg-Essen I worked at the marine laboratory at the Rotterdam Zoo where I was maintaining aquarium systems to develop coral breeding techniques. From the beginning, I had the idea to share my findings with colleagues in the science and aquarium field.

I believed that bringing together scientists and aquarists would be very beneficial to advance coral restoration.

What inspires you in your work?

Ever since I dived for the first time in a coral reef, this wonderful underwater world has captured my imagination.

Corals are a miracle, especially when it comes to sexual reproduction. I was fascinated to manipulate reproduction, for example, to be able to control coral larval settlement within a microhabitat scale of a few millimeters, which would determine survival or death of a coral recruit.

I think my greatest inspiration is taking novel directions, putting an idea into action and joining forces with others to face big challenges. This has led to some amazing breakthroughs in the past that outsiders did not believe we would accomplish, but we did as a group.

I have been fortunate enough to work together with some of the greatest minds in the aquarium and science community, a team that will keep on going until the problem is solved.   

  • Dr Dirk Petersen 02, "Ever since I dived for the first time in a coral reef this wonderful underwater world has captured my imagination.", Dr. Dirk Petersen, (C) Vanessa Cara-Kerr
    "Ever since I dived for the first time in a coral reef this wonderful underwater world has captured my imagination.", Dr. Dirk Petersen, (C) Vanessa Cara-Kerr

What would your message for the future of reefs be?

Coral restoration could eventually be as commonly and effectively applied as reforestation has been applied for centuries. Restoration will change the landscape of reefs as it has done with forests.

Future reefs will look different to today’s reefs, which doesn’t really matter as long as they provide similar ecological and economic services. Nonetheless, coral restoration can only buy us some time. Time that we must use to solve the greatest challenge of all time – climate change.

What’s your favourite creature on the reef, and why?

Corals, of course, the most beautiful, diverse and magical organisms on our planet.

My favorite coral is the elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata). With its brownish branches, it is not one of those fancy, colorful coral species, but it makes a powerful stand against massive waves and storms where other corals would not have any chance to resist. Just this species alone absorbs more than 90% of wave energy, which would otherwise crush the coast, and creates shelter for many other species.

At the same time, the elkhorn coral is definitely the most fragile coral species I have ever worked with. If you touch it, you will spot your fingerprints the next day because the coral’s tissue will have died.

  • Dr Dirk Petersen 03, Dr. Petersen inspecting some of his favourite type of coral, the elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), (C) Paul Selvaggio
    Dr. Petersen inspecting some of his favourite type of coral, the elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), (C) Paul Selvaggio

What’s the oddest thing you’ve seen at sea?

During a scouting trip for a new field location in Guam, I saw some beer cans rolling around in the sand between corals. A few metres further we discovered a huge field of beer cans that were lying on the ground.

Fortunately, those cans were removed in a large clean-up a few weeks later by Underwater World, the University of Guam, and local dive schools.

What’s the next big thing for your work?

The Global Coral Restoration Project that we have launched last year together with the California Academy of Sciences and The Nature Conservancy is for sure the next big thing.

The project involves many partners and we are looking for more to join in the coming years. The goal is to develop and implement novel technologies that will allow restoration at a significantly larger scale than currently possible.

  • Dr Dirk Petersen 04, "My reef heroes are all those out of the spotlight who are teaching children about the beauty and vulnerability of coral reefs", Dr. Dirk Petersen, (C) Paul Selvaggio
    "My reef heroes are all those out of the spotlight who are teaching children about the beauty and vulnerability of coral reefs", Dr. Dirk Petersen, (C) Paul Selvaggio

Who’s your ‘reef hero’ – someone doing great work or advocacy for the future of reefs?

My reef heroes are all those out of the spotlight who are teaching children about the beauty and vulnerability of coral reefs, and how small daily habits can make a big difference to the environment.

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