The Great Grant Knit-a-Thon
By Siobhan Pipa, on 5 June 2015
I’ve always wanted to learn how to knit. Unfortunately a lack of hand-eye coordination and a short attention span mean that it’s a skill I’ve never quite mastered. I also really like quirky museums. So naturally the Grant Knit-a-Thon, organised by the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology as part of this year’s UCL Festival of the Arts, seemed like the perfect event to me.
Teaming up with East London yarning collective, Prick Your Finger, the Grant Museum offered novices and experts alike a day of knitting, crocheting and stitching – all whilst giving us the chance to explore the museum’s current exhibition ‘Strange Creatures: The art of unknown animals’.
The knit-a-thon was inspired by one of the pieces currently on display in ‘Strange Creatures’ – Ruth Marshall’s knitted Tasmanian Tiger skin. The knitted pelt was chosen for inclusion in the exhibition by Sarah Wade (UCL History of Art), co-curator of ‘Strange Creatures’.
As part of the knit-a-thon activities, Sarah gave a fascinating talk on how natural history museums use contemporary art and craft to engage with visitors.
In recent years knitting has seen a bit of a revival. No longer just viewed as a feminine, domestic pastime it’s now used by activists to draw attention to controversial issues in a movement termed ‘craftivism’. Think ‘yarn-bombing’ and artist Cat Mazza’s giant blanket depicting Nike’s trademark swoosh.
Sarah explained that as knitting is still seen as a familiar pastime it presents an unthreatening and approachable medium to address controversial issues. Ruth Marshall channels this unthreatening aspect of knitting to highlight the threat of extinction faced by species – particularly those at risk due to human contribution.
Using pelt specimens in museum collections as a guide, Marshall represents extinct animals, such as the Tasmanian Tiger, in an ethical way with the knitted fabric itself mirroring the fragile nature of endangered animals.
The Tasmanian Tiger was hunted to extinction in the early 20th century as it was frequently blamed for the death of livestock. As there are no living Tasmanian Tigers remaining, Marshall had to rely on other people’s representations of the animal to create the knitted pelt.
Tasmanian Tiger specimens are quite rare in museums and there are not that many accurate depictions. Even those that do exist are mediated through the eyes of the person who prepared them and all photographs are of the animal in captivity.
It’s this theme of animals depicted by those who had never seen them that the ‘Strange Creatures’ exhibition concentrates on. Centring on George Stubbs’ painting of a kangaroo, the exhibition explores how unknown animals are communicated to the wider public.
Other artworks on display include a sixteenth century copy of Dürer’s famous armoured rhinoceros, medieval accounts of exotic creatures, fake “dragon” specimens created from dried fish by sailors and twenty-first century reconstructions of dinosaurs.
From the earliest days of exploration, visual depictions in artworks, books, the media and even toys have been essential in representing exotic creatures that are alien to people at home. With displays created by palaeontologists, historians of science, exploration and art at UCL, the exhibition creates a diverse exploration of animal representation set amongst the museum’s permanent displays.
Although I wasn’t brave enough to try knitting something myself, it was amazing to watch the artistic abilities of the Prick Your Finger members as they created knitted versions of some of the museum’s specimens.
Both Sarah’s talk and the exhibition itself offered a great way to explore the relationship between natural history and art, and in particular how craftivism is used by artists to highlight controversial issues.
‘Strange Creatures: The art of unknown animals’ runs until 27th June 2015. The Grant Museum of Zoology is open from 1–5pm Monday to Saturday and admission is free with no need to book.