Heritage Crafts Association conference: Crafts Across Continents

HCA-logoLast week I had the pleasure of attending the Heritage Crafts Association conference once again. Last year’s event was very relevant to the Design Routes research, and this year’s was no different.

All of the talks were very interesting, and it was great to hear an update on the National Trust’s Artisan and Craft range. Several of the collections in this range correspond directly with our ‘location-based craft’ strategy cluster - for example using materials from, or being made within, a specific National Trust site.

But I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to hear two people speak whose work I have been looking at for our research.

Ritu Sethi is Chairperson of the Craft Revival Trust in India. Ploughing through the archive of the Trust’s website as part of my research into culturally significant designs, products and practices has given me an appreciation of the huge amount of work that has been carried out in this area in India.

At the conference Ritu spoke compellingly of the many challenges faced by traditional crafts across India, including the problem of mass-produced imitations of heritage products and the decline of traditional markets and models of apprenticeship. As she explained, however, much has been achieved in the past few decades in terms of equipping and empowering craftspeople.

Ritu described various initiatives that have provided support in terms of design, marketing and technical assistance. She spoke of the impact of these initiatives which support women to step out from the home, and the ‘ripples’ in the communities where they take place. When asked about the impact of outsiders seeking to intervene in declining traditions, she explained that it often helped people to value their crafts. As she said, ‘When you’re given respect, you realise you hold in your hands a great tradition.’

Ritu also talked about the success of the Encyclopaedia of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Asia - which gets millions of hits every year, despite being run on a shoestring. She also discussed the importance of Geographical Indications - a scheme which tags products as being associated with a particular location. Despite the value of these many initiatives, as Ritu concluded: ‘There are many gaps.’

Eivind Falk is Director of the Norwegian Crafts Institute, which was established in 1987. I had previously heard about the Institute’s work in relation to the documentation of traditional craft skills, so I was pleased to hear Eivind talk about these projects in more detail.

The Institute is very active in this area, organising between 25 and 30 projects to transmit craft knowledge from one generation to the next every year, in Norway and other countries. Each project involves a ‘bearer’ of the craft knowledge, a young maker to learn the craft, and someone to document this process using video. These videos are useful for the learner to check details of the bearer’s practice at a later date.

Eivind described one project which focused on the traditional craft of cutting ice. In the past this ice would have been used as a means of cooling food (and, amazingly, was exported to distant countries). While refrigeration has made this application redundant, ice is now in great demand in Norway as a temporary building material. In this project, the bearer was a 97 year old ice cutter. The learner is now ‘big in the ice business’!

Eivind explained his view of the difference between tangible heritage (such as buildings) and intangible heritage (such as craft knowledge). As he said, if we don’t look after a building for 100 or 200 years, it may be in disrepair, but will still exist. Knowledge is different: when the last bearer of a craft tradition dies, it’s gone. Finally, he talked about a scholarship scheme which enables traditional craftspeople to ‘deep dive’ in their craft. This has supported makers including boat builders, national costume makers, watch makers, and makers of traditional Sami dress.