Heritage Crafts Association

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The Cwm Rheidol Valley.

The Cwm Rheidol Valley.

In what seems like an endless crisscrossing of the country, I spent Friday in Aberystwyth at a symposium about craft, heritage and woodland. The symposium was the culmination of ‘Harvesting the Knowledge’, a joint project between Ceredigion Museum, Tir Coed (a charity which works to improve the quality of life for rural communities in Wales) and the local community, and was funded by the Happy Museum. I was there to talk about the work MERL and the Heritage Crafts Association have been doing to support crafts – the former in relation to craft objects, and the latter in relation to craft skills.

Like MERL, Ceredigion Museum has a large collection of objects relating to local craft and industry. And like MERL, Ceredigion Museum struggles to interpret the objects and to connect them to the processes by which they were made or used. One strand of ‘Harvesting the Knowledge’ has involved working with people with experience in greenwood crafts and woodland management to share knowledge about the craft objects in the collection. And one of the aims of the project is to promote social enterprise through traditional crafts, by creating a range of wood craft products which relate to the Museum’s collections to sell in the Museum shop (and hopefully helping to kick-start the participants’ self-employed careers).

There were lots of examples of greenwood-work on display.

There were lots of examples of greenwood-work on display.

The morning started with an introduction to the project from Alice Briggs, Assistant Curator at Ceredigion Museum. She explained the importance of marketing the new products in the right way, like emphasising that they were made by local craftspeople using local materials sourced from properly managed woodlands, and linking the products to the collections, the stories of the makers, and the tools used to make them. I think there is potential for a lot of ideas-sharing between Ceredigion and MERL in this respect, as I would like the MERL shop to feature more crafts and complement our collections.

Hilary Jennings from the Happy Museum Commission who, as ‘Happiness Associate’ possibly has the best job title ever, briefly explained the idea behind the Happy Museum project. She was followed by Ffion Farnell, Director of Tir Coed – which sounds like a really inspirational organisation! They use woodlands as a resource for social, economic and environmental enrichment, and even offer apprenticeships and accreditation. We then heard from Bob Shaw, a long-term woodsman, and Stuart Evans, designer and technician at the Museum.

Bob Shaw showed us how to 'bodge' a chair leg.

Bob Shaw showed us how to ‘bodge’ a chair leg.

The symposium was held at the Cwm Rheidol Visitor Centre in a beautiful valley with stunning scenery – and there was even a steam train passing by. It was a gorgeous day, and thankfully we were able to spend quite a bit of time outdoors, enjoying the sunshine and the woods. Bob talked us through the craft of bodging and gave us a demonstration of making a chair leg – from cleaving a log with a froe, to trimming with a side axe, rough shaping with a drawknife on a shave horse, and final shaping using gouges and chisels on a pole lathe. And in the afternoon, Phil Morgan of Sustainable Forest Management gave us a tour around the Cwm Rheidol woods and explained the work he has been doing to manage the woods in a sustainable way, working on the principle of ‘continuous cover’ (where you only fell selected trees within an area, rather than clear-felling an area).

Phil Morgan of Sustainable Forest Management gave us a tour of the woods and explained how he was managing these woods.

Phil Morgan of Sustainable Forest Management gave us a tour of the woods and explained how he was managing these woods.

I’m keen to see what types of products are made and how they’re marketed, as I think there’s a lot that MERL can learn from this aspect of the project. But ‘Harvesting the Knowledge’ more generally really appeals to me – particularly as it gives the Museum a role in supporting craft skills and craft careers, and also traditional woodland management practices and careers. So I’m really keen to see what comes of it!

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Project 1: A cherrywood butter knife.

Project 1: A cherrywood butter knife.

One of MERL’s latest acquisitions is a beech spoon carved by spoon-carver Martin Damen during an oral history interview conducted for the Reading Connections project. Martin is a regular at the MERL village fete (he’ll be here again this year on Saturday 31 May) and the MERL traditional crafts fair, and is also a strong supporter of the Heritage Crafts Association. Ever since I first met Martin and saw his beautiful spoons I’ve wanted to have a go, and this weekend I finally had the chance when I went on a two-day course with him. I love trying out different crafts I encounter – because it makes cataloguing easier when you understand how things are used, because I just love having a go at different things, and because I’m hoping to discover the craft that really suits me.
Project 2: Making a spoon, part 1.

Project 2: Making a spoon, part 1.

The course was brilliant – Martin is a great teacher and explained everything really clearly (and you even got a knife and a course book with instructions and diagrams to take away with you). We began by looking at the two key tools – a knife and an axe – and practising the different techniques for using them. Martin makes it look so easy but you do need significant amounts of force/power – hardly surprising given that, even though you are using very green wood, you are using wood. The first day was spent making a butter knife in cherrywood. On the second day we were introduced to another tool – the hook knife, which is used for hollowing the bowl of the spoon – and made our very own spoons out of hazel (I think). Martin was really good at encouraging us to think about how a spoon functions and to consider the shape and form needed to make a spoon comfortable and practical to use (e.g. the shape and depth of the bowl, the thickness of the rim, the crank of the handle etc).
Project 2: Making a spoon, part 2.

Project 2: Making a spoon, part 2. It’s not quite finished – I still need to take the edges off.

It was really really hard work and I felt like I was struggling the whole time – definitely not something that came naturally to me (although obviously a lot of it is down to practise and familiarity with using knives and wielding axes). I’m really glad that I had a go and am very pleased with my pieces (which did admittedly receive quite a lot of help from Martin – I was very slow and would never have completed them otherwise). We got to take some wood away so I am hoping to try again in my spare time – although I think I’ll stick to butter knives for the time being!

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Tool Tales

The Tool Tales instant gallery.

The Tool Tales instant gallery.

On Saturday the Heritage Crafts Association held its fourth annual Spring Conference, and this year’s theme was ‘Tool Tales’. What better theme could there be for a craft conference? Almost every craftsperson needs at least one tool – and some need hundreds!

It was a very packed day, with five speakers, an AGM, awards and an instant gallery of delegates’ favourite tools to fit in. Some of my favourite quotes came from Professor Trevor Marchand, who spoke about problem-solving in bench-side learning – ‘craft is problem-solving and ‘hand work is intelligent work’ – and Dr Phil Harding in his appropriately titled talk, ‘Getting a Handle on Prehistory’ – ‘a tool with no handle is a useless tool’. And Grace Horne, knife-maker and corset-maker, who described herself as having an extra-marital affair with scissors, reminded us that scissors are so much more than ‘two knives attached by a screw’.

Phil Harding getting a handle on pre-history (which I initially mis-read as 'embroidery' and was rather confused!)

Phil Harding getting a handle on pre-history (which I initially mis-read as ’embroidery’ and was rather confused!)

Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company made everyone laugh with his stories of spending his days transporting, dismantling and rebuilding large numbers of nineteenth-century industrial looms (there’s always a few pieces leftover – ready to form part of the next loom). And Roger W. Smith wowed us all with his incredible patience and precision – watch-making is a craft that involves 34 separate trades, all of which Roger undertakes at his workshop where they make only eleven watches a year!

Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company - he's addicted to rebuilding looms!

Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company – he’s addicted to rebuilding looms!

In July 2013 the HCA launched its own suite of Heritage Crafts Awards, building on existing awards, and the winners were announced on Saturday. They included local boat-builder Colin Henwood of Henwood & Dean, who won the ‘Maker of the Year’ award. Colin is based in Henley-on-Thames and specialises in the restoration, rebuilding and maintenance of classic wooden Thames boats – and he was recently interviewed by Phillippa, MERL’s Public Programmes Manager, for the oral histories element of the Reading Connections project.

This week I’m setting myself the challenge of getting to grips with social media – and there’s loads out there about Tool Tales. Why not take a look at the HCA Facebook page to see photos from the day, Pinterest to see photos of tools for the instant gallery, and Storify to see some of the tweets about the day.

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The conference took place in the city’s cultural centre, which is housed in an amazing red brick building which was formerly a ceramics factory.

The conference took place in the city’s cultural centre, which is housed in an amazing red brick building which was formerly a ceramics factory.

Last week I was lucky enough to represent MERL and the Heritage Crafts Association at Sharing Cultures 2013, an international conference on intangible cultural heritage (ICH), held in the city of Aveiro in Portugal.

Usually, whenever I tell people I’m interested in intangible heritage I get a blank look and have to explain what I mean – so, what is ICH? Normally, when we think of cultural heritage we think of tangible, physical things such as buildings, monuments, sites and museum objects. The concept of intangible cultural heritage recognises that there are many non-physical things which are also a part of our heritage. This concept was formalised by UNESCO in its 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which set out five domains of ICH – oral traditions and expressions; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship.

The salt pans at the Ecomuseu Marinha da Troncalhada

The salt pans at the Ecomuseu Marinha da Troncalhada

There were two days of parallel sessions on the five domains of intangible heritage, plus sessions on education and ICH, musealisation of ICH, and safeguarding and managing ICH. I gave a paper on craftsmanship as heritage in the UK, using basketry as an example craft to explore ideas of applying values-based approaches usually used in the management and safeguarding of tangible heritage to intangible heritage, and looked out how such an approach can inform the work of the HCA.

There was also a day of workshop visits to see local expressions of intangible heritage in the Aveiro region – including visits to see the making of ‘ovos moles’ (a traditional Portuguese sweet), salt harvesting at the city’s ecomuseum, traditional painting of ‘moliceiros’ boats, and an ethnographic museum with demonstrations of traditional skills such as basketmaking, netmaking, plant-grafting, and adobe brick making. Read more about the visits on the HCA blog here.

A picture panel on a 'moliceiro' boat.

A picture panel on a ‘moliceiro’ boat.

Various papers caught my attention for different reasons – in my work at MERL, in my HCA capacity, and for my own personal interest – although there weren’t as many papers on craftsmanship as I would have liked! Some of the musealisation papers were of particular relevance to ideas we’ve been exploring in some of the projects at MERL, particularly one by Ferenc Kiss on the use of new technologies for providing multimedia interpretation experiences not only in museums but out and about, making use of smart phones, QR codes (which we’ve briefly experimented with in A Sense of Place), and other multimedia functions. There was also a paper by Sabine Marschall about a project called eNanda Online, a website for digitally recording and sharing oral history and living cultural heritage of a Zulu community in South Africa (which may relate to some of the work we’ve been doing on Reading Connections). Read more about the papers on the HCA blog here.

All in all it was a fascinating conference and it was great to have the chance to meet other people who are interested in and involved in ICH work.

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D2568

It’s that time of year again already… this Saturday, 1 June, is the annual MERL Village Fete!

This year’s Fete has a traditional crafts theme, inspired by the craft collections in the Museum and supported by the Heritage Crafts Association. There’ll be demonstrations from a spoon carver, blacksmith, bodger, saddler and willow weaver, and have-a-go craft workshops. There’s plenty of food and drink on offer, with a hog roast, cream teas and a beer tent. Entertainment will be provided by Armaleggan morris dancers and the Waltham St Lawrence Silver Band.

The Fete is held at the Museum 10.00-16.30. Admission is £2.50 for adults and free for children. There’s more information on the MERL Fete webpage, and the MERL Facebook page.

Hope to see you on Saturday!

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Festival2

This weekend I went to the Dartington Estate near Totnes, Devon, for the Basketry & Beyond Festival – three days of basket madness on the themes of fishing, farming and fashion. Throughout the weekend there were various demonstrations and have-a-go workshops for both beginners and professional basketmakers, as well as an illustrated talk from Mary Butcher (President of the Basketmakers’ Association, and recent winner of a national Craft Skills Champion award). The Festival ended with a wearable basketry fashion parade, with people wearing things they’d made throughout the weekend.

I was in the ‘Heritage Hall’ representing the Heritage Crafts Association, but also telling everyone about the wonderful basketry collections we have at MERL. Our stand was next to that of Dave French, fifth-generation lobster pot maker. Dave has commented on this blog in the past and shared details of his craft, so it was great to meet him and watch him at work. There’ll definitely be a post in the next couple of weeks on lobster pots, as I learned loads, and need to make some amendments to my cataloguing. On Sunday Dave was joined by two other pot-makers, each making pots in a different way. The Heritage Hall was also home to an exhibition about south west fishing baskets, which was based on some of the research that Basketry & Beyond did when they came to MERL a couple of months ago to see our south west baskets.

Festival1

From left to right: Mick Male, bee skeps; Dave French, lobster pots; Alan Lander, lobster pots; salmon putchers.

There was an ‘International Hall’ with French, German, Spanish, American, Japanese and Danish basketmakers – it’s surprising how different basketry from around the world can be when it’s all based on the same fundamental techniques. The International Hall was definitely a place that made you say ‘wow’!

As well as the lobster pot making, I really enjoyed seeing how other things we have in the MERL collections are made – such as salmon putchers, oak swills, bee skeps and wattle hurdles. One of my favourite parts of the weekend was getting to meet the craft legend that is Owen Jones, the last professional swill basketmaker in the UK. Owen was featured in MERL’s Rural Crafts Take Ten project, and you can watch a video of him making his basket online and in the Museum, where you can also see one of his swills. There’s also a good blog describing how he does it. I could watch him working for hours and it took me a while to pluck up the courage to speak to him, and in the end I bought my very own swill – I can’t wait to use it!

Festival3

Owen Jones making swills, and testing the strength of my new acquisition!

 

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A typical depiction of a ‘kishie’, a traditional basket used in Shetland for carrying.

Apologies for the recent silence on the blog front – it’s been that time of year when everyone is away on their summer holidays. I spent last week in Scotland representing MERL and the Heritage Crafts Association at ‘Woven Communities’, an international basketry symposium held at the University of St. Andrews. The overall project, of which the symposium was a part, seeks to document basket weaving communities in Scotland, both heritage and contemporary, and to create a publicly available compendium of the vast wealth of information that springs from this process. The idea for the project grew out of the Scottish Basketmakers Circle, and has been funded by a research grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

We had two packed days of speakers, which included a mix of basketmakers, curators and academics, with presentations along two key themes. The first day centred on different communities associated with basketmaking, such as makers, growers and curators. The second day had a more temporal theme, looking at basketry in the past through the archaeological records, in the present and in the future, with a focus on ideas of sustainability. I was lucky enough to have been invited to speak, and gave a talk on the topic of intangible heritage and heritage craft which focused on issues of relevance, sustainability and values in associated with heritage craft. Have a look at my HCA Day One and Day Two blog posts to find out more about the conference in general.

Ewan Balfour making a kishie and enjoying the presentations.

The conference also included a chance for participants to have a go at making one or two simple things, and we were welcome to carry on throughout the conference – it was great to see people working away with their hands, exploring materials and having an experiment while listening to the talks. Ewan Balfour, a landscape architect and basketmaker from Shetland, could be seen on the first day making what seemed like an endless length of rope, and on the second day he made a ‘kishie’, a traditional Shetland basket used for carrying, most commonly for peat.

I made this piece of rush rope at one of the hands-on sessions.

There was a familiar cry coming from the museum cohort at the conference: we need basketmakers to come in to our museums and tell us about our basketry collections – what materials they’re made from, how they were made, how they were used etc. – as most museums, including MERL, don’t have the knowledge and expertise in-house. The challenge is to find a systematic way of working with basketmakers and recording the information they are able to give, rather than on the ad hoc basis which more often takes place when researchers come to visit collections and share titbits of information. There is perhaps the making of a project somewhere in this.

Felicity Wood, an Oxfordshire basketmaker and collector, has been working with the Pitt Rivers Museum to put together a website about their basketry collections. Having noticed that many people wrongly identify the materials used in a basket, she has also compiled a ‘materials identification toolkit’, with samples of willow, cane, rush etc. – I’m sure this error has also occurred at MERL. I think this could be a useful tool for museums with significant basketry collections.

As a result of the conference, I think I might need to revisit some of the cataloguing work I did on baskets, especially the kishies, which I had thought were always used for carrying peat, when in fact they can be used to carry almost anything. This encapsulates what the ‘Woven Communities’ project is about – it’s about sharing knowledge.

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Every time I look at the Historypin website, the number of channels has increased, with many museums and archives across the world having their own Historypin channel. I’ve had a quick look at some of them, and most seem to be plotting their photographic collections, which is how Historypin was intended to be used. Here at MERL, however, we’re trying to plot out object collections. Danielle explained some of the issues in doing this in her previous post – particularly those relating to the fact that objects are often associated with multiple places. However, there is a third approach to Historypin that I wanted to write about today, as it sprang both from the work we’re doing here at MERL and a post I wrote a while ago about mapping craft.

 

I have mentioned the Potter, Wright and Webb blog before, which looks at traditional regional crafts in the UK. Rachel has written posts on swill basketmaking in Cumbria, sanquhar knitting in Dumfriesshire, Orkney chairs in the Orkney Islands and bodging in Buckinghamshire. When I wrote about mapping craft, I mentioned that I would really like to see the traditional crafts of the UK plotted on a map, and this is exactly what the Potter, Wright and Webb Historypin channel which Rachel set up is attempting to do. (Also have a look at Rachel’s blog post about it here).

 

Potter Wright and Webb's Historypin channel

While other museums are looking to plot where a particular photograph was taken on a map (and also position the photo on street view to enable fading in and out), and while MERL is trying to plot where a particular object was made, used and acquired, Rachel is taking a completely different approach. Instead of looking at the particular, she is looking at the general – at typologies of objects rather than individual objects.

 

MERL 68/595, Southport boat basket

 

Let’s take the example of a Southport boat basket, a basket designed originally for marketing butter and eggs. This is one of the few baskets for which there is a known inventor and date. It was designed in 1830 by Mr Cobham of Mawdesley, Lancashire, and the manufacture was developed by Thomas Cowley, a local basketmaking firm. However, because the design of a basket cannot be patented, the Southport boat has been copied all over the world.

 

We have eight of them in the collection at MERL. We would pin each of these separately to Historypin – pinning each to the place(s) where it was made, used and collected, and would have a separate photo of each basket. Rachel, on the other hand, would have one photograph (which needn’t be any specific Southport boat, just a Southport boat) and would pin it generally to Southport/Lancashire.

 

This approach could be used for all sorts of things. For example, billhooks, wagons and ploughs are often regional in design, and the typology of each could be pinned to that place. So, on Rachel’s map a generic ‘Dorset wagon’ would be pinned to Dorset, whereas on the MERL map a specific Dorset wagon would be pinned to the places(s) it was made, used and acquired (in the case of wagon 61/43 at MERL, that would be Bridport and Broadoak in Dorset (where it was made) and Newhouse Farm in Broadoak (where it was acquired)). Likewise, a generic ‘Sussex billhook’ would be pinned to Sussex on Rachel’s map, whereas on the MERL map a specific Sussex billhook we be pinned to the places(s) it was made, used and acquired (in the case of billhook 54/704 that would be Birmingham (where it was made) and Camden (where it was acquired)).

MERL 61/43, Wiltshire wagon

Rachel is only in the early stages of using Historypin for this purpose and there are still many things to consider, such as whether she is plotting historic traditional regional crafts, or those that survive today, or both. It’s necessary to have a date to pin something to Historypin, and it’s possibly to filter by date so these functions could help tackle this issue. Another  question is how to deal with crafts such as blacksmithing which occur everywhere.

 

Cumbrian swill basket as pinned on Potter, Wright and Webb's Historypin channel.

Even though there are still things to think about, I think this is a great way to use Historypin, and there is potential for cross over with the work we’re doing at MERL, especially when plotting our craft collections. And what’s really good to know is that people are reading our blog, and that it is inspiring them to do similar things. We’d be really interested to hear from any museum already mapping its object collections, or looking to do something similar!

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For those of you who don’t get up early in order to think about rural places and ponder countryside issues, you may have missed our very own Greta Bertram (Sense of Place Project Officer) on this morning’s edition of the BBC Radio 4 series Farming Today. Don’t worry though, you can still listen to her interview online.

As a Trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association, Greta’s interests within the Sense of Place project are increasingly centred on the diversity of  intangible heritage represented by the material holdings at MERL and how these skills may be seen to link to the places where such crafts first emerged or are still maintained in the present day. In her interview Greta hints at the potential for renewed vigour within the extant networks of regional craft skills.

As the project develops Greta will hopefully develop some of these ideas and issues and bring them to bear on the mapping of MERL’s historical holdings.

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