Schad Coral Reef Update

2020, Royal Ontario Museum
biodiversity, climate change, coral bleaching, coral reefs, ecosystems, nature, oceans, Royal Ontario Museum
About This Project

Date: Opening Spring 2020
Partner: Royal Ontario Museum
Location: Level 2, Schad Gallery of Biodiversity, Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen’s Park, Toronto
Project Members: Rebecca Barrett
The Schad Gallery of Biodiversity is a popular destination for visitors to the Royal Ontario Museum. One of the main attractions in this gallery is the living reef exhibit, which displays more than fifty live specimens in a diverse and colourful reef environment. While many visitors enjoy viewing the living reef, they often leave the exhibit without an appreciation of the pressing challenges facing coral reef biodiversity and conservation.
This project involves re-designing the interpretive materials that accompany the living reef to enhance its conservation messaging, improve accessibility, and emphasize the positive actions that individuals can take to help support the delicate coral reef ecosystems that exist all over the world. The exhibit incorporates more than fifty species of live specimens on display in the living reef, a “dead reef” diorama created with objects from the ROM’s own collection, a new tactile coral model that visitors can touch to feel the difference between a healthy living piece of coral and a bleached dead piece of coral, improved graphics, and updated text. This update is meant to inspire and encourage visitors to come together to shape a shared future for coral reef biodiversity, at a time where our oceans are increasingly in crisis.
There are two key ideas conveyed by this exhibit: (1) the coral reef ecosystem is beautiful, diverse, and at risk; and (2) individuals can have a positive impact on the conservation of coral reefs. Some of the themes explored and related to this include the composition of coral reefs, the connectedness of all the species that live in and around those ecosystems, the climate crisis, animal extinctions, collective action, ROM research, and the cultural impact of losing coral reefs.
Since the exhibit is located along a pathway that connects two sections of the Schad Gallery, visitors approach it from various directions. Additionally, the living reef is one of the most popular attractions for children, ROM tour guides, and school classes in the Schad Gallery – meaning that the didactics are often obstructed by groups. To accommodate these influences, the exhibit is organized non-linearly, so that visitors can view or experience any of the exhibit components in isolation and still have a meaningful experience. The exhibit also uses a “Hook, Understand, Care” strategy to engage visitors. This technique allows us to organize content by first hooking visitors into engaging with the ROM’s own colourful and dynamic living tank (we already know that their attention goes to the reef first because it’s so beautiful). Then, we teach visitors the facts about what is important and cool about coral reef ecosystems and the animals that live in them. Finally, we make visitors care about the relevant issues by connecting the ROM’s living reef back to climate change and the larger conservation message of the overall Schad Gallery. The result is that visitors feel inspired to genuinely care about climate change’s impact on coral reefs and animals all over the world.
This project was undertaken between Winter 2019 and Spring 2020 with the ROM’s in- house exhibit development team. Extensive visitor testing was conducted at various stages of the development process to test visitors’ interests and responses to various exhibit components, such as text and graphic layouts. Since this exhibit is so popular among visitors, it was important to us to incorporate the visitors’ perspective and build off of their wants and needs as much as possible.
This exhibit receives extensive use and is a favourite among visitors to the museum. By creating a special experience for visitors, the conservation message of the overall gallery will be more impactful and memorable. The escalating climate crisis and its impact on the oceans’ delicate ecosystems make this update more important and relevant than ever.