The executive director of the Crafts Council on what makers can learn from our Bronze Age ancestors
We know how much materials matter to us: as Mark Miodownik points out in his new book Stuff Matters we name the stages of civilisation after them - the Stone Age, the Iron Age, and so on. So what can makers in the digital era glean from the Bronze Age? Will their work benefit from visiting excavations in Százhalombatta in Hungary, say, or the Nationalmuseet in Denmark, or UK's Stonehenge?
This was the question asked in CinBA (Creativity and Craft Production in Middle and Late Bronze Age Europe) a pan-European research project led by the University of Southampton (with the CC as one of five non-academic partners). Since May 2012, a group of makers from different disciplines - including Mary Butcher, Susan Kinley, Helen Marton, Syann van Niftrik, Julian Stair, and Sheila Teague in partnership with Gary Wright - have worked cheek-by-jowl with archaeologists, uncovering the secrets of creativity in the Bronze Age. Most readers of this magazine will know that bronze is a copper alloy containing small amounts of tin or sometimes arsenic. Less well known, perhaps, is that the scarcity of tin meant the first trade routes in Britain emerged when the new metal was transported from Cornwall to other areas of the country. Our ancestors understood that bronze is harder than copper, so better for carving with and making weapons, as well as creating elaborate objects.
For the Crafts Council, the key to the project has been the opportunity for experienced makers to work in different contexts, learning from ancient history, and perhaps pushing their practice into uncharted areas. How will they take these examples of prehistoric creativity and use them as inspiration? The initial objective wasn't necessarily an exhibition - CinBA was more interested in involving makers in a research project - but in the event, the makers were so inspired that a show was launched alongside a two-day conference at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, where speakers included Julian Stair and Helen Marton. New pieces were juxtaposed with ancient works, to showcase the differences and similarities in creativity over many thousands of years. Highlights were numerous and included jewellery designers Wright & Teague's An Odyssey, a conceptual installation inspired by the new trade routes forged during the era, which included a sycamore branch encased in gold and silver vessels filled with red perfumed wax. Weaver Mary Butcher, meanwhile, drew on her knowledge of the fish traps once common in the Fens to create a hanging basketry sculpture.
What was fascinating about the project was how this group of makers formed their own bond during the process, and how hungry they were to engage with a world they don't usually have access to. It's a fine example of how craft artists are willing to step out of their comfort zones, absorbing new (or in this case very old) ideas, taking their practice into different places and perhaps finding a new audience. The show moves to the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes on 6 July, and I heartily recommend it.
On a different note the Crafts Council was delighted to be involved in two contrasting but equally important new awards recently. The inaugural Craft Skills Awards have been set up to celebrate the passing on of knowledge from one generation to the next.
The idea behind the scheme, created by Creative & Cultural Skills, with input from the Crafts Council, the Prince's Foundation for Building Community, Heritage Crafts Association, and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, was to throw the spotlight on those involved in teaching, maintaining and developing skills from traditional craft right up to cutting-edge digital making. The awards were presented by HRH The Prince of Wales, with winners including boatbuilder Alan Staley, arts organisation Clayground Collective, and the Autonomatic research group based at Falmouth University.
Meanwhile I had the pleasure of chairing the judging panel of the inaugural Perrier-Jouët Arts Salon Prize, won by ceramist Hitomi Hosono. The brief for the prize was to 'transform the mundane into the beautiful' and Hosono was awarded a £10,000 grant towards the development of her career, a solo exhibition at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel's Chambers Club and a research trip to the spiritual home of the House of Perrier-Jouët, the Maison Belle Epoque in Epernay.
In their different ways, the two awards show how the public and private sectors can help promote British making and skill. It almost goes without saying that finding corporate sponsorship is the Holy Grail in the arts world in these days of austerity, so it's wonderful to see a major luxury company such as Perriet-Jouët throwing its weight behind up-and-coming British crafts. Historically craft has never quite had he same cachet with big brands as fine art and design, but perhaps as consumers pay more attention to how and where their products are made this is beginning to change.
For more information, visit www.craftscouncil.org.uk/about-us/press-room
This blog post also appears in the July/August 2013 issue of Crafts Magazine