Traditional craftsmanship is diminishing worldwide. We wouldn’t let our museum collections decay and disappear, so why do we allow this to happen with our intangible heritage, asks Daniel Carpenter, research manager at the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), a UK-based charity.
The HCA is an independent UK charity that was set up in 2009 by craftspeople and supporters of crafts, as a direct response to a perceived lack of recognition and support for traditional craftsmanship in the UK.
UK heritage crafts lack support because these crafts fall between the heritage and art sectors. The heritage sector focuses on the tangible heritage, such as objects, buildings, monuments, and museum collections; it doesn’t focus on the intangible heritage inherent in traditional craftsmanship. The art sector supports contemporary crafts (traditional crafts reinterpreted beyond their original intentions of making useful objects) through Arts Council England, a government organization, but heritage crafts are not publicly funded.
The challenge is how to preserve our intangible cultural heritage: the living skills, practices, and knowledge that define heritage crafts. One solution is to make the intangible tangible, and that’s what the HCA has done by publishing “The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts” in 2017, a UK first.
The list highlights heritage crafts that are practiced in the UK, categorizing each craft as “viable,” “endangered,” “critically endangered,” or “extinct.”
Carpenter is in the process of updating the list, no doubt drawing on his doctoral research on craft heritage at the University of Exeter. The 2019 update will be published as the “HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts”and available on March 9.
Here, he shares about heritage crafts in the UK and the impact of the first “Red List.”
The Epoch Times: On the HCA website, it mentions that the UK has not ratified the UNESCO 2003 Convention for Intangible Cultural Heritage. Why is this important?
Daniel Carpenter: We’re one of only 15 countries now in the world not to have signed up to the convention. We’ve never had a clear answer from the government as to why that is, just that it’s not its priority.
We’ve got amazing intangible heritage crafts in the UK, not just craft knowledge and skill, but also artistic practices and festivals. In other countries, they’re able to list their practices as recognized as intangible heritage by UNESCO and they get extra support, but we’re not able to do that, unfortunately.
The Epoch Times: So you’re updating the “Red List” now. What are you doing differently in the update?
Mr. Carpenter: Because we’re on limited resources, we missed a lot in the first list; we didn’t have enough time to capture everything. So a lot of the research has been focused on filling in the gaps of what we were unable to research last time.
And then, there are some things that have changed in the last two years: either that the crafts have become more sustainable, or they’re struggling a bit more.
The Epoch Times: Can you please give some examples?
Mr. Carpenter: The actual new entries will be embargoed until the new publication. But one of the things that we missed last time was millwrighting. That’s constructing and maintaining windmills. We’re adding it to the list this time around as a critically endangered craft.
And then, there are crafts that are changing categories. One big success we’ve had is that last time, sieve and riddle making was listed as extinct. Sieves and riddles are beechwood and wire mesh hoops used to sort and filter material, and they are used in industries such as agriculture, fishing, mining, and catering. But since we launched the “Red List,” two makers have seen the list and taken up the craft. So sieve and riddle making is moving from extinct to critically endangered. That’s a craft that’s been revived as a result of the “Red List,” which is fantastic.
The Epoch Times: How did they go about learning sieve and riddle making if it was extinct?
Mr. Carpenter: One of them is teaching himself; he’s a shellfish fisherman, and he’s used riddles all his life. And the other one has gotten the last craftsman, Mike Turnock, out of retirement to show him how to make them. Turnock is delighted that the craft is going to be carried on. He was really sad to have been the last maker.
The Epoch Times: Do you think these craftspeople have that sense of responsibility to continue their craft?
Mr. Carpenter: Yes. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that. When something is labeled as “heritage,” does it give people a sense of responsibility and indebtedness for future generations that they have to carry it on? I think that may be one side effect of this work that we’re doing: to give people that sense of responsibility. We don’t want it to weigh too heavily on their shoulders, but if it means that a craft is passed on, then that could be a good thing.
A lot of these crafts are quite specific, and they’re putting all their energy into serving a niche market. If they step away from production for any length of time, that market could disappear, and they might find it very difficult to train somebody. It takes a lot of time away from the workbench to train somebody up to the requisite level in order to have them as a productive worker.
That’s where the crisis points are happening with these crafts, with an aging workforce who may feel that they’ve left it too late to pass on their skills to the next generation.
The Epoch Times: In addition to sieve and riddle making being revived, what’s been the outcome of the previous list?
Mr. Carpenter: Other crafts that were featured have had good exposure. One is Martin Frost who does fore-edge painting, which is painting on the edge of a book so you can see the design when the pages are fanned open. Fore-edge painting is listed as critically endangered.
Frost was struggling for 30 years to make a living in his craft, and after being featured in the “Red List,” he was on the BBC’s “The One Show,” and he’s had bookings to demonstrate and teach from all over the UK, and he’s been to Holland to demonstrate his craft. And then, in the recent New Year Honors list, he was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire, a national honor for his craft, so it’s really been life-changing for him and his craft.
Then, there’s a lady called Lucy McGrath who’s just started her paper-marbling career. She’s been teaching, and it’s really been taking off. I think she might have struggled without the “Red List.”
And then we’ve partnered with Airbnb; we’re providing experiences and workshops, as well as accommodations. We’re really pleased to be working with them, as they’re quite a modern company. We don’t want people to associate heritage crafts with the past all the time. It’s about the present and the future as well.
The Epoch Times: Is there a difference in how young and old people approach heritage crafts?
Mr. Carpenter: Yes, I think young people tend to be more positive about the future of these crafts. There’s a big reaction, I think, to digital culture: People want something more analog and more real than being in front of a screen all the time. There’s definitely an upsurge of interest in these crafts among young people, and I think a lot of it is very genuine; it’s not just a fad or a fashion. I think there are people who want to take these crafts on, and make a lifelong career out of it.
I think that in the past a lot of people didn’t want to share their skills because they were worried about people setting up in competition. But people are more open to sharing them and realizing that the potential market is big enough for new competitors as well.
The Epoch Times: I had this romantic idea of some craftspeople working in a forest or a little cottage away from everywhere. Is that the case?
Mr. Carpenter: Sometimes it is, but not always. It’s not always as romantic as it seems; a lot of craftspeople are struggling to get by on less than minimum wage or the equivalent of.
The romantic and nostalgic side of it can help us sometimes, in that it can generate a lot of interest, but then we hope that we can give a more complex story of the issues facing these craftspeople.
The Epoch Times: If people are living on a minimum wage, what keeps them going?
Mr. Carpenter: I think it’s just the enjoyment of what they do; they’ve made a life decision not to focus their lives on money, but just have a good quality of life.
There are a lot of people who supplement their incomes through demonstrations and through teaching. Probably the majority actually have to do things other than making things, in order to make a living.
The Epoch Times: Are these heritage crafts viable industries to go into?
Mr. Carpenter: I think it is, but it’s not just a judgment based on your projected income; it’s got to be a passion as well. I think the people who are the most passionate are willing to adapt what they do to the market. I think it definitely is possible to make a good career from these crafts, and people are doing that.
The more people that are doing it, the more the general public will appreciate these traditionally made items. So hopefully, it’ll be more the norm for people to choose these types of careers.
The Epoch Times: Do you think there’s a common thread running through these craftspeople you connect with?
Mr. Carpenter: Yes, definitely. I think it’s something about working with your hands and creating something that, at the end of the day, you can look and have that sense of achievement. I think that ties all these craftspeople together, and I think that’s a very attractive way of living.
These days, a lot of people who work in an office don’t get that sense of achievement that they’ve produced something at the end of the day.
The Epoch Times: What do you hope from “The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts”?
Mr. Carpenter: A lot of people think we want public funding to serve all these crafts, and for the government to pour lots of money into it. We do want to save as many as possible, but the main objective of the “Red List” is just to draw people’s attention to the fact these crafts are disappearing without anybody noticing.
So it’s to promote that public debate of what we feel is an important part of our culture and heritage. It’s not necessarily saying everything should be saved, and we should pour millions into it. It’s more about drawing people’s attention to the fact that we’re nearing a cliff edge with a lot of these crafts, and they’re just going to drop off and not be able to be revived.
To find out more about the Red List, visit HeritageCrafts.org.uk
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.