In the Netherlands the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage has been implementing the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2012. Its aim is to promote and improve the accessibility of intangible cultural heritage, to provide a boost to the sector and professionalise it, to encourage participation and to enhance the associated knowledge.
To achieve this aim, the Centre develops activities geared towards retaining, managing and developing intangible cultural heritage in the Netherlands. It advises authorities on matters linked to intangible cultural heritage and encourages debate on this topic. Furthermore, the Centre supports communities with the challenge of safeguarding their intangible cultural heritage and pursues an active media policy to raise awareness of the value of this heritage.
What exactly is intangible cultural heritage? In short, intangible cultural heritage refers to all the social customs, traditions and rituals that people recognise as being part of their cultural heritage and are passed down from generation to generation (based on the UNESCO definition). Intangible cultural heritage is divided into five different categories: social practices, oral traditions, performing arts, traditional crafts and knowledge of nature. The Centre has developed a number of criteria to support the identification of intangible cultural heritage:
- It is a form of living culture that is passed down from generation to generation;
- The practitioners of this culture regard it as part of their heritage;
- The heritage is dynamic, which means it can change over time;
- Practitioners are keen to pass it down to future generations;
- The heritage contributes to social cohesion and identity.
A changing role for museums. Museums play an important role in safeguarding heritage. They are experts when it comes to preserving valuable objects. Preservation is just one of the aspects involved in safeguarding heritage, the other two being the exchange of knowledge and innovation. If we want to keep intangible cultural heritage alive, innovation is key. Museums could expand their role as preservers of heritage by ensuring they open their doors not just to visitors, but also to current developments within society. By examining social developments in cooperation with the communities concerned, museums can acquire a new position. The Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage believes the Crafts Lab can provide an important stimulus and help us actively explore the possibilities in this area.
Can a museum play an active role in the area of innovation? Examples of innovation can be seen within the ‘conventional’ museum tradition. The Zuiderzeemuseum, for instance, innovates by entering into partnerships with artists and designers. At the very least this ensures high-quality presentations. In terms of the production process and the exchange of knowledge, however, the emphasis with these kinds of partnerships lies in particular on the unforeseen potential that they open up for designers. We want to challenge the entire production chain. With the Lab we have in mind we are keen to bring about an exchange of knowledge between all three links in the process when it comes to traditional crafts. In this way we hope to establish a long-term collaboration, the main aims of which will be the transfer of knowledge and innovation, but the results of which will hopefully also serve as a stepping stone towards new presentation practices for museums.
This is potentially an innovative role for museums, one in which they are undeniably more closely attuned to the spirit of the times. In our view this will enable them to fulfil an important role as social enterprises. Six Dutch museums from the Network of Craft-Related Museums have responded positively to the idea of bringing the Crafts Lab to life at their museum (alongside the Holland Open Air Museum, these are the Princessehof Ceramics Museum, National Glass Museum, Dutch Silver Museum, Museum De Kantfabriek and the Zuiderzeemuseum).
Knowledge, skills and techniques linked to traditional crafts – the intangible aspect of a craft – therefore constitute one of the categories of intangible heritage. The key element that characterises intangible heritage is the fact that it is dynamic. It evolves over time and as it passes down through the generations, who make it their own and give it new meanings. In this way these traditions and customs remain an active part of the social life within a community.
What do we understand by the term ‘craft’? Although there is no readily available definition of a craft, there are a number of clear criteria that make a craft and the resulting products distinctive:
- A craftsperson is able to transform a raw material into a finished product;
- A craft has a historical and cultural basis;
- A craft is something one learns by repeated practice. By repeating the action, one develops muscle memory. It is said that it takes 10,000 hours, the equivalent of five years of work, to learn a craft;
- A craft involves working with one’s head, heart and hands;
- Craft products adapt to the demands and circumstances of the consumer/market;
- A craft product contains traces of the maker’s hand, as every product is unique;
- Craft takes time. Craft products are made with care and attention;
- Crafts form the basis of every creative process.
Why a Crafts Lab? In days gone by products were generally created by hand. This knowledge was passed down from generation to generation through craftsmen’s guilds, and later through schools, but often also from father to son or mother to daughter. Since the Industrial Revolution virtually all products have been manufactured by machine, placing traditional hand-crafted products in competition with cheaper, mass-produced goods and putting many craftspeople out of business.
A number of these crafts have been inscribed on the Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Netherlands. The Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage, part of the Holland Open Air Museum in Arnhem, has been compiling and coordinating this Inventory in the Netherlands since 2012, guided by the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The Inventory is a way of helping the communities who are the practitioners of intangible cultural heritage to safeguard the future of their heritage.
To achieve this aim, the Centre takes a number of initiatives, including organising annual ICH days so that it can meet craftspeople and members of the communities whose heritage has been inscribed on the Inventory. We take this opportunity to engage in more focused discussions with practitioners. The Centre has noted that the current generation of craftspeople in particular need assistance when it comes to securing the future of their craft and tying it into a modern context.
Fortunately, in recent years we have witnessed growing interest in traditional crafts and the associated skills. It is a sign of the times to put crafts back where they belong. Our Crafts Lab initiative will contribute to this ambition.
The Crafts Lab aims to ensure that traditional crafts remain relevant and attractive to new practitioners in the future. It is therefore important that they are innovative and tie in with developments on the current ‘market’.
For this reason, in 2018 the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage is launching a Crafts Lab at the Open Air Museum. Through this Crafts Lab we hope to contribute to innovation by setting up a
partnership between craftspeople and various training institutes, artists and designers, allowing them to work together on innovations that will give crafts a sustainable future.
The wider context of the Crafts Lab. It is clear that the prevailing model of continuous capital growth and uninhibited consumption of raw materials is no longer sustainable. Rather than more growth, a different kind of growth is needed. If we stick with the old system, we are heading for a decline in our well-being and prosperity. Various thinkers and economists are in agreement: our current system is so imbalanced that fundamental corrections are needed. The aim here is to make our society more sustainable from an ecological, economic, social and cultural perspective. After all, sustainability is about more than just our environment and climate. It relates to our society as a whole, how we produce and consume, and how we interact with each other... An alternative can be found by transforming from a linear to a circular economy. This is an economy that regards products as raw materials for new products and makes the switch from dwindling fossil fuels to renewable energy sources...an economy that is more transparent and pays a fair price to the actual producers of goods...
…, social design, participatory design, open source design, user of human-centred design, service design, sustainable design or sustainist design… An impressive-sounding list, but one that has been included here simply to make clear that change is afoot in the design world. It highlights that we are still in the midst of the revolution. The design industry is trying to come up with new ways of designing and interacting with the world. The context within which designers operate has changed fundamentally...
The questions and feelings evoked by the different disciplines listed reveal parallels with the approach of the British Arts and Crafts movement in the 19th century. According to William Morris and his supporters, industrialisation and mechanisation had destroyed the world of simplicity, beauty and craftsmanship and they wanted to restore it. Following the philosophy of John Ruskin, they claimed that true art had to be both useful and beautiful and had to stem from the same union of art and labour in service of society that also characterised the design and construction of the Gothic cathedral. Heirs to the Arts and Crafts movement, such as the Art Nouveau movement and Wiener Werkstätte, also followed these principles, as total art styles combining design and craftsmanship.
Crafts Lab as an innovative production chain. The Crafts Lab creates links between craftspeople, vocational education students, designers and production platforms to promote cross-fertilisation. It aims to bring the different links in the production process together to encourage the exchange of knowledge and innovation during an intensive period of work. The central link within the Crafts Lab is the craftsperson him/herself. Craftspeople are the practitioners of heritage; they are the grassroots communities and without them safeguarding heritage is impossible. However, to ensure heritage can be safeguarded for the long term, we need training institutes that offer their students the chance to become proficient in a craft and absorb the specialist knowledge that practitioners have built up.
The second link, comprising committed training institutes and young professionals, is therefore essential if crafts are to survive in the longer term. Without them these crafts have no future.
To achieve innovation in relation to a craft, however, one also needs sparring partners who are keen to think along, as well as being willing and able to offer differing perspectives. The Lab is therefore looking for sparring partners who are prepared to challenge and ask ‘difficult’ questions, who dare to look beyond the craft itself or who are interested in seeking out the real essence of a craft. The third link in the chain is made up of designers (artists) and marketing and communication specialists. People who have a natural ability to think outside conventions, but above all who recognise the added value of ‘crafts’ and the wealth of possibilities they offer.
These three links actually form a natural production chain that is capable of rejuvenating and, above all, maintaining itself. By joining up these three links, it is possible to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and create an environment of inspiration and innovation, and that is what the Lab aims to do.
One Lab, five results. Besides safeguarding the future of the craft by setting up the Lab, the participants also have an opportunity to achieve individual objectives. Vocational education students learn from the design methods employed by artists and designers or the strategies that marketeers develop to promote products. Designers and artists in turn learn a great deal from the technical approach and knowledge of materials that the students and craftspeople bring to the Lab.
As the organiser of the Lab, the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage is expecting knowledge and expertise to be secured and hopes the Lab will serve as a springboard for innovation in the area of crafts. The craftspeople are expecting to receive support and to raise awareness of their craft, and hope to identify or explore possibilities for innovation within the current market. Training institutes are expecting to acquire in-depth knowledge and expertise associated with crafts and are seeking contact with (craft) product designers.
Designers are expecting to learn from the craftspeople about working with materials and techniques by questioning the use of these materials and techniques and casting a critical eye over work in progress.
The museum sector can take the active role that the Open Air Museum and the Centre are playing in relation to the Crafts Lab as the basis for a case study to examine and document the changing role of museums.
What form will the Crafts Lab take? The Crafts Lab will be run on the basis of a small-scale workshop/think-tank model. Each Lab will involve three to five participants and a craftsman or craftswoman, each of whom will bring their own knowledge and expertise as a starting point. The focus will be placed primarily on the exchange of information, the transfer of knowledge, experimentation and the exploration of potential partnerships. In its most successful form the research conducted within the workshops could result directly in practical innovations and concrete products (that the craftspeople can create). However, it is the changing composition of the collaborating specialists that will give the Crafts Lab, as a series of meetings, its own particular feel and character.
The Labs will work partly under supervision (workshop supported by the training institutes and Centre) and partly in the form of self-organising teams.
Sometimes experiments go wrong and during the Crafts Lab there will no doubt be times when things do not work out as expected. However, we also need to see our failures in a positive light and learn what lessons we can from them. That means that, together with the participants, we need to take a positive but critical approach when examining our process. Whichever course we follow we will assess it against our wishes and ideals in terms of research, craft-related innovation and knowledge transfer.
Which training institues may be interested in the Crafts Lab? The practitioners of heritage, the craftspeople themselves, are the starting point for the Crafts Lab. As already touched on above, however, knowledge and insights from other areas are needed to allow these craftspeople to look at their own knowledge and expertise through fresh eyes and, in particular, to examine how this traditional knowledge and expertise are handled (cultural aspects associated with a craft). Training programmes such as industrial product design (HAN), product design (ArtEZ), fashion design (ArtEZ), communication (HAN) and vocational programmes in the areas of woodworking, furniture, glass, leather and textiles, such as those offered by Cibap/Zwolle, HMC/Amsterdam, Sint Lucas in Boxtel, AKA Nijmegen and the master tailor programme in Amsterdam, could bring this alternative perspective to the Lab.
Where will the Lab take place? In the first instance the Lab will be a platform for an open exchange between the various specialist fields and disciplines, providing an insight into what each of them can do. That means a Lab could take place anywhere. We will initially launch Labs at the museum. Where possible, they can then be continued at the workshops and studios of the craftspeople themselves. However, the training institutes could also be an ideal location for the craftsman or craftswoman to offer a masterclass, for example, broadening and deepening the students’ specialist knowledge and contributing to the principal ambition of knowledge transfer. The aim at all times, within the framework of an open dialogue, will be for the participants to refine their own methods, strategies and knowledge in a process of cross-fertilisation by examining the questions and approaches to research and reflection that characterise each individual’s professional practice.
Structure The first Crafts Labs will be launched at the end of August/beginning of September 2018. Each Lab will cover a period of 6-8 weeks. This will include a masterclass given by the craftsperson at the training institute, a (working) visit to his/her workshop and a launch day at the Holland Open Air Museum. The rest of the time is intended to be used by the participants to work together on a joint piece of work or prototype.
Where and when will the Lab be visible? The Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage is part of the Holland Open Air Museum. For the most part, however, the Crafts Labs will work on their developments and findings out of sight of ordinary museum visitors. Nevertheless, we are keen to involve visitors to the Open Air Museum in the processes that are taking place. We will therefore follow and film the various Labs to create a video record of developments. These short films will be presented at the Open Air Museum, on our website and, if a good opportunity presents itself, in other locations too. In addition, we will create a specific, contemporary presentation platform for the designs and models that result from the various Lab partnerships. Our colleagues at the National Glass Museum, the Dutch Silver Museum and the Zuiderzeemuseum will also be following and participating in the Crafts Lab.
Schedule. The success of the Crafts Lab will ultimately depend on the knowledge and capabilities of the various participants. In the run-up to the actual launch of the Lab partnerships, on Monday 25 June we will be organising a Presentation at the Open Air Museum, to which craftspeople, the Network of Craft-Related Museums, training institutes and designers will be invited. A number of speakers will shed light on the potential of these cross-over partnerships. At the end of August/beginning of September we will launch the first Labs with the participants. The idea is that a number of Crafts Labs will be organised each year, each covering different crafts and disciplines.
Finance. The Crafts Lab will be launched at the Holland Open Air Museum with the help of a financial contribution from the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage. To expand the project to other museums and related crafts, funding will be sought in partnership with the Cultural Participation Fund, following an approach in keeping with the vision outlined by the Minister of Education, Culture and Science in her 2018 culture policy document ‘Culture in an Open Society’. The starting point here is to make a financial contribution to the craftspeople involved, as they will be taking on an educational role and also initiating a process of innovation, the results of which will not cover the costs incurred right from the outset.