Notes from The MERL Annual Lecture: Making and the Creative Economy

I am particularly privileged to have such dedicated tutors at my place of study, as course leader of Rycotewood’s furniture degree program, Joe Bray, will often send out a group email updating students on local events and opportunities. I don’t suppose all design students can say that.

A recent event recommended to the students by Joe was the Museum of English Rural Life’s Annual Lecture held at the Reading campus. As well as the enticement of a drinks reception, the lecture struck me as an exciting opportunity to learn about continued relevance and importance of craft in the modern age.

This year’s talk was in partnership with the Heritage Crafts Association, the Art Workers Guild, and the Crafts Council. Funding from Arts Council England enabled the museum to host a season of events under the umbrella title of Showing, Doing, Telling, which explores Craft and Making. This contributes to the Museum’s wider programme of events that hopes to engage with a more varied range of audiences.

For 2017, the format of the event was a panel discussion, which successfully brought together influential thinkers connected to craft and making, in order to address some of the more pressing issues that face our creative economy. A diverse selection for the discussion meant the event was both inspiring and informative; having sparked several new ideas for my own practise, as well as bringing a few new questions to the surface of the ongoing dialogue.

An introduction of each of the guest speakers set the tone for the rest of the discussion, having such a wide cross-section of academics and experts from the craft arena. Dr Alex Langlands, is a Broadcaster, author, and Lecturer in Archaeology and History at Swansea University. To begin, he acknowledged the paradox that presents itself within the contemporary craft revival, because in addition to his recent book Craeft, there has been a steady stream of craft based literature published over the last decade; significantly: The Craftsman (Sennett, 2008), The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (Crawford, 2010) and Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman (Korn, 2017). The contradiction being that one of the key features of craft is that it is the ability to embody knowledge, and therefore no amount of reading of books will help develop a master craftsman. However, what it does demonstrate is that there is a healthy appetite for a discussion and understanding of what makes craft such an important part of our culture and heritage.

Roger Kneebone, Professor of Surgical Education and Engagement Science at Imperial College London, highlighted this when he commented on the importance of addressing the past, in order to inform our ability to progress forward. However, As Dr Langlands noted there is all too often susceptibility for feelings of nostalgia when speaking about craft, so we should exercise caution when referring to the past, so as not to do it looking through rose tinted spectacles. We judge the past through objects, so- as Dr Langlands pointed out- it is in fact waste that we should be so concerned with, as this will be the type of artifacts that are examined in a hundred years time; the things that will inform future generations of our material culture as it is right now.

The way craft informs the landscape around us is the particular interest of Dr Nicola Thomas, an Associate Professor in Cultural Historical Geography at the University of Exeter. Craft ecology describes the way politics, craft and the economy knit together, and is what is at the heart of all the solutions to contemporary issues facing the world.

The first round of questions explored the idea of skills transmission. Within this theme the viability of crafts, how changes to educational systems will affect craft practices, and the economy of being paid to learn were all raised for discussion. The response was the unanimous belief that making remains an important skill relevant to a substantial amount of areas for study; whether that is helping medical students with their dexterity for taking blood, or geography students with their ability to think in three dimensions. As well as this, the transferring of making skills through education is an important developmental part of learning, which offers consumers the opportunity for a better understanding of the products they are buying. An appreciation for hand made goods will allow them to make more informed consumer decisions and awaken a more ethically minded market. This view was voiced by Charlie Gladstone, author and Co-Founder of The Good Life Festival.

The next theme for questions was the economic validity of craft and making. The rise in the luxury industry has seen brands such as Burberry using language from craft, such as craftsmanship, and longevity, in order to market it to consumers. The rise in money invested into metropolitan areas, means craft is more likely to thrive as part of an urban cluster, as opposed to a rural one. The ability to network and curate events within a community leads to not only the successful selling of products, but also of ideas and lifestyles. A quick history lesson; as the contextual relevance of crafts guilds was explained for our benefit by Dr Thomas. They were the original networking tool used by rurally based craftspeople prior to days of LinkedIn and Instagram. These collective clusters, particularly in remote places, such as islands, allowed for the sharing of knowledge and collecting of contracts.

As the Bauhaus did through its teaching in the earlier part of the twentieth century, the breaking down of silos between craft disciplines is something we are still striving for. And as we should be, since much is to be gained by uniting people and learning from each other. As is demonstrated by much of the work of Professor Kneebone, who uses his membership of the Arts Guild to a great advantage, as it allows him to learn across different frameworks. So we avoid the linear learning patterns of training within a singular field, by instead finding similarities across different disciplines and building lateral networks of study. Craft offers a huge scope of work due to the different operatives within the field; by sharing a common passion, a variety of skill sets are able to cooperate.

Clary Salandy, a costume designer and founder of Mahogany Carnival Design, was a particularly impassioned speaker on the panel. Her work within communities allows not only individual development, but also for wider social engagement. Her business provides basic skills to their craftspeople, which gives them the opportunity to shine through with their personal ability. Archiving was highlighted by Salandy to be an effective tool for education and the development of personal practise. Teaching through objects means learning will always stem from a creative root. This also means children become fluent from a young age with the language of art, and are therefore more easily able to engage in the social dialogue surrounding it.

Having travelled from Newcastle to Reading the same day of the lecture, my 60-liter backpack had the new addition of the Alex Langsland book, but it was no way near as full as my head was with ideas after sitting in on this year’s MERL annual lecture. An empowering event that was engaging and insightful.


4 responses to “Notes from The MERL Annual Lecture: Making and the Creative Economy”

  1. So sad I missed the event Hattie but really glad you made the extra effort to go – thanks for sharing the experience!


  2. This sounds like a great evening. I’ll as Jo to add me to his mailing list so I hear all about these events!


  3. Very interesting, you have just written 1/2 my thesis…..pity I was pulling pints instead of there with you. Will have to pick your brain (again!)


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