Intangible Heritage

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If you happen to be in Reading today with nothing to do (4 February 2014) why not pop along to MERL at 13.00 for our lunchtime seminar? This series of talks, entitled ‘Untouchable England’, looks at how different forms of intangible heritage might help us explore and better understand rural England.

Today’s seminar will be given by… me! And I’ll be talking about basketry skills as intangible heritage, examining the idea of heritage craft, exploring values that basketmakers ascribe to their work, and looking to the future of intangible craft skills. After the talk there’ll also be an informal pop-up exhibition of baskets in the Museum’s mezzanine store and a chance to talk more about MERL’s current Stakeholders project.

 

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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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From right to left: Tim Goddard, Blacksmith; Felicity, Trainee Blacksmith; Felicity's poker.

From right to left: Tim Goddard, Blacksmith; Felicity, Trainee Blacksmith; Felicity’s poker.

Felicity and I have been working on so many different and exciting things recently that we’ve got a bit of a blog-backlog, so I thought I’d give you a quick update on some of the things we’ve been up to (and hopefully more detailed posts will follow when we get a chance).

At the beginning of July, Felicity and I went on a one-day blacksmithing course at Avoncroft Museum near Bromsgrove as part of our bid to try out different crafts so that we have a better understanding of them and can catalogue them more accurately. We both made beautiful pokers – and the glorious weather we’ve been having recently has given us a chance to test them out on the BBQ.

The following week, we had two days of photography training at Reading Museum’s store – learning all about lenses, apertures, shutter speeds, focusing and so many other things – and then began photographing their 600 shortlisted Historic World Objects as part of the Reading Connections project.

Last week, six of us were lucky enough to go to Sweden (generously funded by ERASMUS) to visit the Nordic Museum and Skansen (one of the world’s oldest open air museums) in Stockholm. We also had a chance to visit the Gustavanium at the University of Uppsala. The main purpose of the visit was to exchange ideas and inform plans for future development at MERL – but we all had our own areas of focus. Felicity was concentrating on the presentation of ethnographic material, particularly relating to the Sami, while I was looking at how craft was represented.

This weekend, Felicity attended an international conference at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (thanks to funding from the PRM and Oxford ASPIRE) on the topic of The Future of Ethnographic Museums. She gave a poster and presentation on the work of A Sense of Place and its links to museum ethnography. (Ollie has written an interesting post for the Our Country Lives blog about how the ethnographic discourse relates to MERL.) The conference was the culmination of a five year project funded by the European Commission called Ethnography Museums and World Cultures.

And this week (thanks to funding from ERASMUS and the HCA) I’m attending Sharing Cultures 2013, an international conference on intangible heritage, where I’ll be presenting a paper on basketry as heritage in the UK. The conference includes a day of workshop visits, and also has sessions on intangible heritage and traditional craft, and intangible heritage and museology, all of which I’m really looking forward to.

In the meantime, Laura has been doing a fantastic job with enhancing object records and giving them the ‘Sense of Place treatment’. She’s well on her way to getting us to the 1970s – at which point we’re planning a celebration 1970s style!

So there’s plenty to blog about and hopefully you’ll hear more about all of this soon.

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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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