The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef

October 16, 2010 – April 24, 2011
Sant Ocean Hall, Focus Gallery, Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C.

Toxic Reef constructed from plastic bags, cable ties, video tape and plastic debris, at the Smithsonian.

Image © Institute For Figuring (by Christine Wertheim)

After showings in London, New York, Chicago, and Dublin, the Crochet Coral Reef project has arrived at  the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. By inviting participation from all over the country, the exhibition highlights the IFF’s groundbreaking work at the forefront of public science engagement.

Here, a Smithsonian Community Reef includes crochet contributions from almost a thousand people in every US state, and many nations beyond – a world-first for citizen representation at a major science museum. The names of all 900+ contributors are printed on a panel in the gallery, thereby granting the makers formal status within this prestigious institution and elevating the public from mere spectators to generators of exhibition displays. One of the goals of the Crochet Reef project is indeed to propose that ordinary people can be engaged in a form of “vernacular science” and that hand-making processes can constitute materialized “knowledge production” – in this case by emulating the mathematical forms of living reef organisms.

Large crochet coral reef sculpture stacked in a pyramidal form.

The Smithsonian Community Reef.

Image © Institute For Figuring (by Steve Rowell)

Constructed in the shape of a huge coral island more than ten feet high, the vast wooly edifice of the Smithsonian Community Reef was inspired by a diorama of an ancient coral reef in the permanent display of the museum’s Sant Ocean Hall.

Highlights of the exhibition also include newly-curated versions of the IFF’s Bleached Reef and Ladies Silurian Reef, along with a spectacular installation of our Toxic Reef – created entirely from crocheted plastic bags and other plastic detritus. Plus a brand new Green Reef. Also on display is a selection of individual works from our most skilled Core Reef Contributors, plus two large pods from the Latvian Reef, and Dr Axt’s ever-popular hanging-masterpiece Reefer Madness.

The Smithsonian Community Reef was organized for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History by Jennifer Lindsay.

The Crochet Coral Reef project has been supported by grants from the Annenberg Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the Norton Family Foundation.

Entrance to a large museum with big columns on the facade.

Entrance to the Smithsonian museum, Washington, D.C.

Eva Hausman
View of gallery containing glass vitrines filled with crochet coral reef sculptures.

Left: Natural History Cases of individual contributors works; with Dr. Axt’s Reefer Madness suspended above. Right: the Green Reef and Smithsonian Community Reef.

Image © Institute For Figuring
View of gallery containing glass vitrines filled with crochet coral reef sculptures.

The Green Reef (foreground) featuring psychedelic coral piles by the Scottsdale Reef crafters; and in background, the Ladies Silurian Reef.

Image © Institute For Figuring
Detail of crochet coral reef sculptures installed in a glass vitrine in gallery.

Toxic Reef, made entirely from plastic! Conceived as a response to the environmental tragedies of the oceanic plastic trash and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, never has the siren call of rubbish been so festive. Featuring video-tape kelps by Christine Wertheim and Evelyn Hardin, Jelly-Yarn kelps by Kathleen Greco, plastic-bag corals by Siew Chu Kirk, and blue plastic-bag anemones (made from New York Times wrappers) by Clare O’Callaghan.

Image © Institute For Figuring
Detail of crochet coral reef sculptures installed in a glass vitrine in gallery.

Toxic Reef (detail) featuring Siew Chu Kirk’s orange plastic-bag coral, Clare O’Callaghan’s blue plastic anemones, plus YellyYarn kelps by Kathleen Greco.

Image © Institute For Figuring (by Christine Wertheim)
Detail of crochet coral reef sculptures installed in a glass vitrine in gallery.

The Ladies Silurian Reef with Cat-in-the-Hat overtones. Featuring orange corals by Christine Wertheim, white spires by Evelyn Hardin, pale-pink anemone grove by Heather McCarren, carnation coral mound by Marianne Middelberg, and giant diatom by Scottsdale Reef crafters.

Image © Institute For Figuring
Crochet coral submissions in storage in old wooden drawer cabinet.

Stored corals for the Smithsonian Community Reef. These white corals are for the reef’s bleached section.

Image © Institute For Figuring (by Margaret Wertheim)

Institute For Figuring “Core Reef Contributors” in the Smithsonian Exhibition:

  • Margaret Wertheim (Australia, CA)
  • Christine Wertheim (Australia, CA)
  • Anna Mayer (CA)
  • Sarah Simons (CA)
  • Evelyn Hardin (TX)
  • Anna Mayer (CA)
  • Helen Bernasconi (Australia)
  • Marianne Midelburg (Australia)
  • Barbara Wertheim (Australia)
  • Helle Jorgensen (Australia)
  • Ildiko Szabo (England)
  • Heather McCarren (CA)
  • Dr Axt (OR)
  • Nancy Lewis (VT)
  • Anitra Menning (CA)
  • Shari Porter (CA)
  • Vonda N. McIntyre (WA)
  • Sue Von Ohlsen (PA)
  • Rebecca Peapples (MI)
  • Clare O’Callaghan (CA)
  • Eleanor Kent (CA)
  • Kathleen Greco (PA)
  • Aviva Alter (IL)
  • Nadia Severns (NY)
  • Arlene Mintzer (NY)
  • Jill Schrier (NY)
  • Pamela Stiles (NY)
  • Anita Bruce (UK)
  • Mieko Fukuhara (Japan)


  • Ann Wertheim
  • Elizabeth Wertheim
  • Allie Gerlach
  • Lynn Latta
  • Quoin
  • Catherine Chandler
  • Sally Giles
  • Pate Conaway
  • Kristine Brandel
  • Cindy Bennish
  • Spring Pace
  • David Orozco
  • Diana Simons
  • Dagmar Frinta
  • Barbara Van Elsen
  • Njoya Angrum
  • Lily M. Chin
  • Siew Chu Kerk
  • Ranu Mukherjee
  • Katy Bevan
  • Rosy Sykes
  • Beverly Griffiths
  • Jane Canby
  • Ellen Davis
  • Jennifer White
  • Sharon Menges
  • Tane Clark
  • Nancy Youros
  • Ruth Curruthers
  • Irene Lundgaard
  • Aoife Canavan
  • Audrey Cremin
  • Elzbieta Rzechula
  • Emer Brady
  • Jacinta Douglass
  • Jennifer Byrne
  • Madge Kenny
  • Moira Jones
  • Orla Breslin
  • Serene Baird
  • Una Morrison
  • Geraldine Coogan
  • Gunta Jekabsone
  • Tija Viksna and the Latvian Reef Crafters

Plus contributions from the Scottsdale Reef Crafters along with unknown doily makers and Chinese factory workers.