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Yarn Tells a Tale of the Plight of Coral Reefs

Courtesy National Museum of Natural History

The massive replica of a coral reef, one of the newest exhibitions at the National Museum of Natural History, looks like a craft project gone horribly awry.

Colorful yarn makes up the towering mass of psychedelic sea life, which includes thousands of corals, anemones, oysters and starfish.

Clearly, this isn’t your grandmother’s crochet.

The reef, which encompasses an estimated 800,000 yards of fiber and more than 520 square feet, was made by more than 800 volunteers as part of an art and environmentalism project called the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef. The artists behind the project, Australian sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim, wanted to call attention to the plight of coral reefs and the need to protect them.

The Wertheims began constructing their own crochet reef in 2005, inspired by a mathematician who discovered that crocheting was perhaps the only way to replicate the hyperbolic space — a kind of 3-D, non-Euclidian geometry — that makes up the structure of coral and other flora.

The sisters realized they could use crochet for more than just making doilies or scarves. They could raise awareness about ocean pollution and global warming. The project ballooned when they began soliciting contributions from other crotcheters, and it ultimately grew to include thousands of pieces of contributed crocheted coral. The crochet reef has been displayed in galleries around the world. Wherever the exhibition goes, Margaret Wertheim encourages the local community to crochet its own reef. The Smithsonian’s community reef, which required hundreds of volunteers and thousands of hours of work, is the largest of its kind.

“The opportunity to engage the local community is something we want to do with all of our exhibitions now,” said Barbara Stauffer, chief of temporary exhibitions. “It’s such a hands-on way to interact.”

To help volunteers create the community reef, the museum, along with sponsors including the Embassy of Australia, the Quicksilver Foundation and the Coral Reef Alliance, held workshops with 13 local yarn shops and other local groups. From May through September, volunteers collected and sorted coral submissions from 25 states and three countries. Churches, synagogues, schools and even government agencies contributed.

Some crotcheters used field guides as models and created very accurate copies of sea life. Others took artistic license. No submissions were rejected. Then came the really hard part.

“The challenge was to make all the pieces come together in one reef,” said Jennifer Lindsay, programming coordinator for the Smithsonian Community Reef. “It’s an incredible statement about biodiversity, and also an incredible statement about community diversity and American life and crochet.”

Lindsay says many participants have come to the museum to see how the bit of crochet they contributed fits in. And despite the piecemeal approach, she says the result is harmonious. “It’s a beautifully integrated project,” she said.
“Everybody is moved by it, even if they weren’t involved. It’s just arrestingly beautiful.”

But the reef is intended to be educational as well. According to some estimates, rising carbon dioxide levels, which cause ocean warming and acidification, could wipe out most coral reefs by 2050.

To call attention to the rising danger, the project also features a bleached reef made of pale and neutral yarns and fibers. In contrast with the brightly colored reef, the pale version represents coral subjected to rising water temperatures, which provoke a stress response in the coral that drains its vibrant color and leads to starvation.

“Anything we can do to bring attention to the beauty and wonder of the reefs and their need for protection is important,” said Nancy Knowlton, the National Museum of Natural History’s Sant Chair for Marine Science. “We do have to act if we want reefs to be there for our children. ”

The project fuses science, art, mathematics, environmentalism and community. “Some people initially thought it was a crazy idea,” Knowlton said. “But I don’t think we have any non-converts left.”

“We tend to think of science and art as being really different,” said Jane Milosch, director of the Smithsonian’s Provenance Research Initiative. “But artists work much more empirically than you might imagine, and scientists are much more intuitive in their work than one would imagine — both use observation and research in their discovery process.”

The coral reef exhibition is open through April 24. Margaret Wertheim will speak about community art in conjunction with the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef at the museum on March 12, and the museum will sponsor a Family Day on April 16.

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