Written by Greta Bertram, Project Officer for A Sense of Place and Countryside21.
MERL has a fantastic array of traditional craft products and tools in its collections, from such crafts as blacksmithing, wood turning, carpentry, lacemaking, leatherwork, pottery, stonemasonry, straw crafts, and wheelwrighting (plus many many more!). Many of these objects are on display in the Museum’s gallery, and visitors to MERL can also watch videos from a project called Rural Crafts Today, showing ten contemporary traditional craftspeople at work (short versions of these films are also available online).
The craft collections are one of the things that first attracted me to the MERL, and my first visit to the Museum was to interview the former Keeper, Roy Brigden, about craft and intangible heritage in museums. In my life outside MERL I’m a trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), the advocacy body for traditional heritage crafts. The HCA aims to support and promote traditional crafts as a fundamental part of living heritage in the UK and to ensure that those craft skills are carried on into the future. I’m always on the look out for potential collaborations between MERL and the HCA, and there are a lot of crossovers in the work that I do. During the sixteen months I’ve been working at MERL I’ve catalogued a good proportion of the craft objects, and undertaken engagement activities with basketmakers in my MERL-HCA capacity. You can find out more on the Sense of Place blog.
Last Thursday I attended the inaugural Craft Skills Awards, a national suite of awards to recognise best practice in passing on craft skills. The awards were set up by Creative & Cultural Skills and partner organisations, including the HCA. The prizes were awarded by His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales – Patron of MERL, and President of the HCA. The categories included ‘Encouraging Craft Skills in the Workplace’, ‘Encouraging Craft Skills in an Educational Setting’, ‘Encouraging Craft Skills in an Informal Setting’ and ‘Engaging New and Diverse Audiences in Craft Skills’. You can find out more about the awards and the winners, and watch a great video about why we should support craft, here. I was lucky enough to meet the Prince and to say thank you for giving a wonderful speech in which he quoted some of the findings from a new piece of research which I’ve been involved in, Mapping Heritage Craft, highlighting the issues faced in skills transmission. Both the Craft Skills Awards and Mapping Heritage Craft also highlight the vibrancy of the traditional crafts sector, as there is a mistaken tendency to think that these crafts are dying out and are no longer part of our contemporary rural (and urban) landscape. We’re hoping to be able to reflect this is in the new displays at MERL, and I think it would be great if we could find a way to present some of the more ‘intangible’ elements of traditional craftsmanship as well as the tangible objects.
I will also be running the HCA stand at the MERL Village Fete on Saturday 1st June, with the help of a local spoon carver. This year’s fete has a traditional crafts theme and there will be several craftspeople demonstrating their skills on the day. Come along for a great day, a look round the museum and to find out more about the HCA!