Tuesday, 4 June 2013

'Making History' at St Fagans

by Daniel Carpenter, HCA Trustee

On Saturday (1 June 2013) I took part in an Open Day we helped to organise with St Fagans National History Museum of Wales. The purpose of the day was to put forward plans to build a new facility to showcase traditional craft skills as part of a £25 million investment entitled ‘Making History’

As well as two new developments (Bryn Eryr and Llys Rhosyr) planned for construction in the next two years, a brand new facility called the Gweithdy (or ‘workshop’) will become a pioneering hub for the transmission of tradition crafts skills at various levels.

While some of the necessary planning, such as the architectural design, has already been completed, there was plenty of scope for the assembled craftspeople to feed into plans on how the museum can fulfill its vision that Gweithdy become a model of best practice in the transmission of craft skills.

A recurring theme of the discussions was the increasing recognition of craft as intangible heritage, a point made powerfully by Andrew Dixey, when he spoke about the ‘tyranny of the tangible’ that has pervaded the UK heritage sector for decades – a point echoing head curator Beth Thomas’ introduction, and which also I picked up on in my talk.

Museums and heritage institutions have always been at the forefront of celebrating our traditional craft skills, not least through the preservation and showcasing of historical craft artifacts. The best museums went beyond that to embrace the concept of ‘living history’, inviting craftspeople to demonstrate to the public how craft items were made – and St Fagans was a pioneer of this in the second half of the 20th century.

However, one common response to living history is "this is great, but it's just a reconstruction of the past - craftspeople like this couldn't operate today". The HCA believes that these crafts can be viable going concerns, given a combination of sympathetic operating environment, business development, tailored trainee/apprenticeship models, and education of the public on the value of traditional crafts.

For them to be truly 'living history‘ (i.e. a legacy to be passed on, rather than just recorded or reconstructed) then we need to show that craftspeople can make a living from them, for the benefit of not just themselves, but their local economies, and the cultural value of their communities.

The challenge is now to demonstrate that, not only can these skills be recreated in the historical setting of the museum, but that the museum can go further to support the continuation of these crafts by facilitating this more complex, multifaceted relationship between craftspeople and their community, with a real sense of co-ownership of a community’s evolving cultural identity though support of its craftspeople.

Again St Fagans is at the forefront, and although we don’t know the exact form that the crafts elements of Making History (and the Gweithdy in particular) will take, we believe that this a huge step on the path to increased recognition of the importance of heritage crafts not just to our economy, but to our shared cultural identity.

There was a real sense of optimism and excitement in the room, underpinned by a healthy critical reflection on some of the challenges facing the project – not least how to bridge that gap in skills transfer between the decades of expertise and tacit knowledge demonstrated by the craftspeople of Wales with the momentary nature of a taster or drop-in session.

Though I’m convinced that it’s the wish of the staff at St Fagans to provide opportunities for skills transmission at all levels of commitment and ability, it is not yet apparent how this is to be achieved in practice.

The HCA will continue to work in partnership with St Fagans on the development of crafts within the Making History project and the Gweithdy.

If you’re interested in finding out more and contributing to the discussion, email daniel@heritagecrafts.org.uk.