The Crafts Council and V&A's joint exhibition Power of Making is heading towards becoming one of the V&A's most successful free exhibitions ever.
It was a wonderful way to kick-start the Crafts Council's 40th anniversary celebrations in September this year. It has been hugely gratifying to see hoards of visitors entering the exhibition on all the occasions I have been at the V&A since it opened. It has certainly captured the popular imagination but why has it made such a positive impression?
Obviously much of its success can be attributed to the skill of the curator, Daniel Charny, and to the attraction of the V&A as a venue. Importantly too, the show's timing has been perfect. When we first discussed the theme with the V&A a couple of years ago, it was clear that a shift was already taking place.
The government has been talking up the importance of making, most notably George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who in his budget speech announced: "We want the words: 'Made in Britain' 'Created in Britain' 'Designed in Britain' 'Invented in Britain' to drive our nation forward. A Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers." The journalist and economics expert Evan Davies recently produced a book and BBC series - Made in Britain - investigating British manufacturing, and the BBC (in partnership with the V&A) is launching a year-long series of shows that promise to explore the history of craft called Handmade in Britain.
You only have to watch the crowds of visitors transfixed by the films in Power of Making to realise that people remain fascinated by how things are made. Yet, for a gamut of reasons that began with the industrial revolution and encompass globalisation as well as technological advances, our chance to have direct contact with makers and making has decreased considerably. As Daniel Charny correctly points out in his foreword to the show's catalogue: "The distance between the maker and the user is growing and, with it, knowledge, understanding and appreciation are diminishing."
The aim of the Power of Making then is to encourage visitors to think about the objects around them and, hopefully, to come away from the show with a firmer grasp of the importance craft has in so many walks of life - be it medical science, industry, food, fashion, art, music, or transport. Importantly the show is emphatically not interested in romanticising the handmade, harking back to a golden era of making. The techniques on display range from the traditional - a dry stone wall, a barrel - to the cutting edge technology of 3D printers.
If the response from critics is any barometer, the show is also going a long way to changing the understanding of the word 'craft'. Alastair Sooke, the Telegraph's deputy art critic, summed up a perception we have been fighting for years when he opened his review with the following: "'Craft' is such an off-putting word, with connotations of amateurism, and a reactionary attachment to time-honoured traditions." Happily by the end of the piece he admits that the show turned this perception on its head. "What these objects share is a certain hand-made, heartfelt, visibly human aesthetic - and if that personal touch vanishes, then we'll be cast adrift in a jerry-built limbo of branding, cheap manufacturing and mass-market consumerism," he concludes.
It also shows the benefits of our policy of partnering with other institutions to produce shows on a stage large enough to attract visitors who otherwise might not think craft was for them. Lost in Lace - a joint exhibition developed and delivered in partnership with Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery opened last week, and our regional touring exhibition Block Party opens at Smith's Row in Bury St Edmunds in January. We hope that with these exhibitions and our various other programmes we're removing the stigma that has (unfairly) been attached to the word 'craft' by too many people for too many years. It's time the nation woke up to the work of its brilliant makers.
This blog post is also in the November/December issue of Crafts Magazine
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