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Many years ago, Museum of Coastal Carolina founder Stuart Ingram visited a well-known taxidermist in Fort Myers, Fla., who specialized in fish. To display his work in an impressive manner, this taxidermist had designed and built his own reef room.
Ingram loved the reef room and showed it to his wife, Louise. They agreed to build a reef room in the Museum of Coastal Carolina to display the marine animals that frequent local waters. Many museum visitors have said the Ocean Reef Gallery is their favorite part of the museum.
The Ocean Reef Gallery that museum visitors walk through today is a testament to the creativity of the Ingrams. She designed the exhibit after examining underwater photographs taken by the N.C. Underwater Archaeology Institute in Fort Fisher to ensure animals in the reef would be displayed in the correct hierarchical order; that is, that they would appear as though they were actually swimming in the ocean. Using the photos as references, she developed an understanding of the topography of the ocean floor.
The shipwreck on the floor of the Ocean Reef Gallery is a real shipwreck. It came from the institute and is on permanent loan to the museum. It was discovered off the coast but was never identified. Tommy Ward, a local fisherman and house painter, volunteered to paint the reef room to match the ocean depths.
While his wife was busy designing the reef, Ingram concentrated on the animals that would be displayed in it. His small, hand-carved models of each animal are on display in the museum today. The fish molds were produced by the taxidermist in Fort Myers, Fla., and hand-painted by Tony Varnam.
Hanging the fish in the reef room turned into something of an adventure. Planks were placed over the rafters so workers could walk out and hang the fish. Piano wire turned out to be the only wire that would work because it did not stretch over time. The wire was sharp and difficult to handle resulting in bloody hands of the workers.
Now that you know the history of the museum’s Ocean Reef Gallery, come and see it for yourself. Visit the Museum of Coastal Carolina at 21 East Second St. on Ocean Isle Beach. Off-season, the museum is open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday and Saturday Admission is free for members. Non-member admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and students, $4 for ages 3-4, and free for ages 2 and younger.
For more information, call 579-1016 or visit www.MuseumPlanetarium.org.