Handmade Knowledge: the new challenge for craft

This post summarises the main content of my talk at From Experience: creating objects, interest and interaction – the event held in Belfast, 3-5 March 2011. The talk will be video streamed starting at some point over the next few weeks, and I will provide a link to it here. I will therefore use this post to provide relevant links and a very brief summary of content. The key arguments I presented were these:

  • Craft knowledge is too important and too unique to be limited to the domain of the hand-crafted object.
  • A focus on craft knowledge – as opposed to craft products – opens up new opportunities to demonstrate the relevance of craft in the 21st century.
  • HEIs can focus their support in terms of business and skills development – but extending this into a research context is more productive and constitutes real knowledge transfer.

I began by referring to makers such as Gordon Burnett, Drummond Masterton, Justin Marshall and Anne Marie Shillito as examples of craft’s quiet revolutionaries who in differing ways have been exploring the digital interfaces of craft practice. What distinguishes these quiet revolutionaries from many other makers who have integrated digital processes within their practice is that they have an explicit research agenda that is embedded with their creative practice. It is the growth of PhD research in craft over the past decade has been the most significant development in craft education and research, and we need to reflect far more on its implications for craft. The key impact of the new doctors of craft has been:

  • Demonstrating the value of craft knowledge to other disciplines.
  • Extending the technical, aesthetic and cultural potentials of craft practice
  • Enriching the culture and methods of craft education
  • Enhancing the status of craft as a source of knowledge
  • Developing the making of objects as a knowledge based process

I then gave a number of examples of makers who have been working at a doctoral level whose research has had significant impacts on medical physics, scientific research, CGI technologies, archaeology, etc. These examples are elaborated in detail in my latest published book chapter, which is part of the volume The Public Value of the Humanities, edited by Jonathan Bate and published by Bloomsbury. It is possible to access the full text of this chapter through this link to Bloomsbury.

Other examples cited, not included in the book chapter are Hazel White’s Haemfarers Kist project, the doctoral research by Jo Hodge in the field of wearable technologies and smart textiles, Joanna Montgomery’s pillow talk project, and the forensic jewellery project conducted by two current MDes students at the University of Dundee: Maria MacLennan & Ruth Watson.

I also referred to the value of making and craft knowledge that can be seen in an emergent new politics of community culture. This has been explored most recently in the book Hand Made, edited by Tessy Britton.

The need to is to understand and to assert the value of the very distinctive nature of craft knowledge. A paper written by Karen Yair, co-authored by Anne Tomes and myself, and published in 2001 provides a vital framework for this: Crafting competitive advantage: Crafts knowledge as a strategic resource.

In summary, Handmade Knowledge is a distinctive UK strength, a unique mode of research, a proven source of innovation, a means to humanise technology, a vital and valuable source of learning, a means to redefine creative practice, and the source of methods that can empower communities to think through making.


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