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Going live and unleashed

After the euphoria of Make:Shift comes a new digital project 

I sit down to write this following the successful launch of the Crafts Council’s Make:Shift conference at the end of last year. It was a whirligig of extraordinary ideas. But what really struck me was the air of optimism in the room. Yes, craft’s tectonic plates are shifting – and our education system may be lurching towards a genuine crisis – but it’s wonderful to see how makers are willing and (naturally enough) able to adapt. 

In among the films of drones attempting to create buildings, and discussions on nanotechnology, there was a comment from designer Gareth Neal, who pointed out that while it was important to look forward, we shouldn’t forget about innovations of the past.

It seems to me that we need to orientate ourselves to think of the past as part of a continuum with the future, and it’s one of the reasons that the Crafts Council is working on The First Decade Project (1972-1982), which unleashes artefacts from the archive and objects from the Crafts Council Collection never before made publicly available online. The period represents such iconic figures as Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, and includes key works by such makers as Gillian Lowndes, Ann Sutton and Carol McNicoll. 

It forms part of 40 years of acquisition of the most significant pieces of contemporary craft in Britain. The Crafts Council has an enviable collection of 1,600 objects – including ceramics, glass, metal, jewellery, furniture, textiles, wood, basketry, automata, calligraphy, lettering and bookbinding. Investigating the Collection is a fascinating way to understand both the organisation and the wider crafts world of the time: how it evolved, what underpins the work that we do now and what has changed.

Gloria Lin, the curator and researcher of The First Decade Project, says: ‘According to former directors, the collection was not intended as a “social history” and that from the very beginning it had a travelling and educative role.’ She also raises a number of questions about why, what and how we collect. ‘When selection methods were examined (both before and after the Purchasing Committee was set up in 1975), it became clear a number of idiosyncratic and audacious purchases were made,’ she says. Her research has started to uncover contexts of acquisitions, the relationship of craft, art, innovation and design, the dynamic 70s ethos and the personalities that drove emergent and exciting practices. How best to then disseminate this wealth of knowledge to the wider public? Of course this is something we’ve long been doing, with our ambitious programme of exhibitions and loans complementing existing collections, or bringing work for the first time to museums and galleries across the country.

However, technology now allows us to take another approach. Our 2011 online exhibition 40:40 – which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Crafts Council by examining 40 objects from our collection – illustrated how new digital tools can help enrich our understanding of the social and cultural context works were created in. Its success has encouraged us to take a more comprehensive approach to the digital presentation of the pieces we’ve acquired. 

Thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Crafts Council will be able to interpret and examine 100 objects in a dynamic, interactive digital showcase, including such associated archival artefacts as letters, drawings and other ephemera from the first 10 years of its Collection. As Lin observes: ‘The work so far has been an act of forensic investigation to bring together things that will tell the story of that decade. We’ve looked at a long list of over 700 objects, created by almost 200 makers, sifting through a working archive of fragmented and (sometimes very partial) material.’ The project will also create fascinating new layers of information, such as recording oral histories with makers to preserve the hidden narratives behind the work.

As we unpack the 70s archive now, it begins to illuminate the historical legacy connecting them to the makers of today. The exciting start of this project has also raised issues, such as how best to conserve fragile materials or the techniques a maker used. These, combined with objects from the Handling Collection, will enable us to do as my predecessors said and use the Collection as an educational tool. We will be publicising the new resource through a partnership programme, engaging diverse audiences via a series of workshops and seminars. These will also offer museums, galleries and historic houses the chance to deepen their knowledge of both Handling Collection and archive.

Our vision is that The First Decade Project is just phase one in a project to digitise the related material associated with the entire Collection, and that through the website and social networking, the Collection can act as a creative catalyst for future generations. Because, as Gareth Neal has adroitly said, there are vital lessons to be drawn from the past, and we neglect our heritage at our peril.

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