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  • Writer's pictureTzipporah Johnston

Butterflies Revisted

Over the next month, I'm going to be writing a bit about the pieces I currently have on show at the Nature/Nurture exhibition at the Leyden Gallery in London. This week, I'm starting with the oldest one - the butterfly specimen case.

7 embroidered butterflies mounted in an entomological case

Butterfly Specimen Case, 2018-19

This was the first big stumpwork piece I made after I decided to get serious about textile art. It took nearly a year to create, beginning to end (though I was working through a chronic illness which limits my capacity - everything takes me longer). The new work I’m creating is quite a departure but I still look back at this with pride.

On one level it’s a straightforward recreation of a Victorian butterfly specimen case, inspired by the ones I used to be in awe of at the Oxford Natural History Museum when I was a student. It's partly a tribute to the beauty of insects, but it's also an homage to the museum.

The NHM forms part of a complex with the Pitt Rivers, Oxford's museum of anthropology and ethnography. With the Pitt Rivers in particular, to visit is to feel like you're walking back through time into the Victorian age. There are objects stacked floor to ceiling in glass cases, but also drawers you can pull out to investigate. It's so overstuffed, I had to transfer into a special narrow wheelchair when I visited, as my mobility scooter wouldn't fit between the cases. It was like no museum I'd ever seen before, and I was entranced.

Like most of my early work, the butterflies are a tribute to the Pitt Rivers and NHM. Less obviously, though, they're also about autism.

The two museums were the starting point for my installation The Museum of Monotropism. It presents a museum of my brain as a way to make sense of, and communicate, the way I experience the world. In my next post, I'll be talking about that, and how a case of butterflies fits into a museum of autism.

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