British Museum blog

Can craft be used to help change the world?

With Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman opening on 6 October 2011, the Museum has asked contributors from the world of craft for their perspective on craft today. In this blog, Sarah Corbett from The Craftivist Collective discusses whether craft has the power to change the world.

Join in the live Twitter debate around the themes of this blog at 13.00 BST on Wednesday 31 August 2011 using #craftdebate.

I’m guessing when someone says “craft” many of you picture old women knitting, tapestries of leaves and birds, maybe hipsters starting to crochet or at a push, Tracey Emin’s banners about her life. Mostly pretty images; Tracey might be controversial, but sadly it doesn’t leave you thinking that craft can change the world. We want to challenge that thinking!

Craft + activism = craftivism. Craftivism might be a new-ish word, but it’s not a new concept. There’s a long, fascinating and inspirational history of craft being used to expose injustices.

You heard about the terrible human rights violations in Chile right? Well did you hear that women in Chile, under the dictatorship of Pinochet, used handcrafted tapestries (called Arpilleras) to raise international awareness of the political situation? The Catholic church and NGOs smuggled these Arpilleras out of the country to raise international awareness of the brutality of the Pinochet regime. Not only that, the craft of these women also encouraged a powerful grassroots political movement by providing them with an opportunity to express and record their grief and emotional turmoil about the death or disappearance of their loved ones, something that the regime and the poverty they lived in didn’t allow.

In the UK, another group of craftspeople are challenging the norms and making people think about justice. The Craftivist Collective have volunteered to support the amazing Fine Cell Work, a social enterprise that teaches needlework to prison inmates and sells their products. As an Officer at HMP Wandsworth said, “Fine Cell Work gives these men dignity in work and, through this, dignity in life. When a man gains self-respect he may start addressing his offending behaviour”. Not only is craft positively changing the lives of inmates who are often ignored or written off by society, but 53 of these craftspeople provoked thousands of visitors of the V&A British Quilts exhibition last year to think about the socio-political situation in the UK through the medium of quilting.

The Craftivist Collective are inspired by the work of people like those amazing Chilean women and the talented UK prisoners. We are a collective of hundreds of craftivists across the world who marry craft with activism to expose the scandal of global poverty and human rights injustices through the power of craft and public art. We do this as individuals and groups through provocative but non-threatening creative actions. Our aim is to provoke discussion and ideas about global injustices and plant seeds in people to encourage them to act to make the world a more just place. We also want to prove that activism doesn’t have to be violent, preachy, threatening, elitist or negative. Anyone can get crafty to expose injustices and even maybe have a chill out and a laugh in the process!

Like the Chilean women and prisoners we are not always noticeable. You might find us cross-stitching our Mini Protest Banners on buses and trains; we are happy to talk about what we are doing if you take interest. You might see us in a cafe drinking tea whilst hand-embroidering handkerchiefs for MPs, asking them not to blow their chance of using their power to make a positive change in the world. If you are really eagle-eyed you might see us sneakily gaffer-taping up a battered Barbie with a mini placard to provoke conversation about gender inequality.

So what can make craft so powerful? Using craft means we often engage people who have had little involvement or interest in politics and activism. Craftivism projects can be delivered by individuals or groups, of great or no skill in craft, anywhere in the world. People seem to want to read our messages because they are presented in an interesting, often beautiful way and we don’t tell people what to think.

OK, so we admit that, on its own, craft would struggle to save the world, but it can move us in the right direction. Handmade, personalized craft can and does often provoke conversation, personal reflection and empower people to take action. The incredible bravery and determination of the Chilean women who crafted Arpilleras is difficult to forget. The message of the quilt made by UK prisoners and the stories of the positive effect craft has on their lives challenged thousands of people who saw it at the V&A. The Craftivist Collective have been in The Observer, filmed by French TV, lead workshops at the Tate and Hayward Gallery, exhibited in Brighton and craftivists have even been seen stitching on stage with comedian Josie Long. Craftivism gets people talking and always encourages an active response. Hopefully, seeing a craftivist’s piece of public art will make you take a photo on your phone, share it on Facebook and talk to your mates about how this craft has reminded you that we all need to encourage each other to do our bit to change the world into the just place it can be.

What do you think? Join in the live Twitter debate around the themes of this blog at 13.00 BST on Wednesday 31 August 2011 using #craftdebate.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton. Book tickets now

Photographs by Robin Prime.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Small objects telling big stories


Anna Bright, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

Broadly speaking, museum interpretation is everything we do that helps visitors make sense of our collection. As the person responsible for interpretation on the refurbishment of the Money Gallery, I’m going to explain in this and later posts what my role involves on a project like this.

So what do I do? Alongside Catherine Eagleton, curator of the Money Gallery, I am working to help define the stories that will be told through the objects on display and to develop a structure for these narratives. As part of the core project team I also work with designers to ensure that the design helps communicate these stories and key messages. I will then edit the text that curators write for panels and labels.

To develop narrative structures around objects that successfully communicate with our visitors, we need to understand those visitors. This is a key aspect of interpretation work here at the British Museum – we carry out evaluation that informs and backs up everything we do. We find out things like who our visitors are, how long they spend in a gallery, and the ways they tend to move around the gallery space. All of this information helps us to plan where and how we can best communicate the key messages of our stories to our visitors.

As Catherine Eagleton mentioned in her last post, one of the big challenges we face in the gallery is how to cover 4,000 years of the history of money in one room. We are planning a narrative structure that is at the same time chronological and thematic. Each display case will contain objects that tell stories around a particular theme, typically with a number of case studies within each theme.

One of the very earliest coins, from Lydia (western modern Turkey), about 650-600 BC.

One of the very earliest coins, from Lydia (western modern Turkey), about 650-600 BC.

But that is not all. There will be over 1,000 objects in the room. Our visitors typically spend around three hours on a visit to the Museum, but on average they spend just three minutes in any one gallery. That’s three minutes to look at and read about more than 1,000 objects covering 4,000 years of history. Very challenging indeed!

Clearly it is crucial that we help visitors make sense of the gallery space and this narrative structure. To do this, we are planning a trail of key objects that visitors can follow that will tell them stories covering the key themes.

The idea is that, through the clever use of design, someone coming in to the gallery will immediately be able to spot this trail, and will realise that there are key objects throughout the gallery for them to look at. We call these ‘gateway objects’. This gateway object approach to gallery interpretation is something we have developed here at the Museum over the past few years and which I’ll write about in more detail in another post.

The Money Gallery project is supported by Citi and opens in June 2012.

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Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery, ,

Hitchcock’s Blackmail and the British Museum: film, technology and magic


Matthew Cock, British Museum

I was intrigued to read in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper (A Hitch in time) about Rescue the Hitchcock 9, a major campaign by the BFI to restore all nine surviving silent films by one of the greatest directors of all time, Alfred Hitchcock. It drew my attention because one of these is Blackmail (1929) whose climactic chase sequence was shot at the British Museum.

With three of the films, including Blackmail, the BFI have the original ‘camera negative’ – the very film that passed through Hitchcock’s camera. These, according to the Guardian, will be “fed through a digital scanner, copied using a cold light source, with each of the 100,000 odd frames given a unique number. Once in the digital realm, stored as images of 4096×3112 pixels (about double the current release-print standard), the films are subjected to careful cleaning and minute analysis for colour balance”.

A still from Blackmail. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

A still from Blackmail. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

My first reaction was to wonder what the restored film would reveal of the interior of the Museum 82 years ago. I did a few searches online to see if I could find out more about the scenes, and soon discovered that Hitchcock’s filming of the British Museum wasn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Because the chase sequence wasn’t actually filmed on location at the Museum – it was filmed at Elstree Studios using a process invented by the German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan and refined while he was working on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, completed only two years earlier.

A still from the chase sequence in Blackmail. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

A still from the chase sequence in Blackmail. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

Hitchcock talked about the filming in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich for his book The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock in 1963, and explains the process.
Bogdanovich asked him:

“Was the chase through the British Museum shot there?”

“No, it was all process. You see, there was never enough light in the British Museum, so we used what is known as the Schüfftan process. You have a mirror at an angle of 45 degrees and in it you reflect a full picture of the British Museum. I had some pictures taken with half-hour exposures. I had nine photographs taken in various rooms in the museum and we made then into transparencies so that we could back-light them. That is more luminous than a flat photograph. It was like a big lantern slide, about 12 by 14. And then I scraped the silvering away in the mirror only in the portions where I wanted the man to be seen running, and those portions we built on the stage. For example, one room was the Egyptian room, there were glass cases in there. All we built were the door frames from one room to another. We even had a man looking into a case, and he wasn’t looking into anything on the stage. I did nine shots like this, but there was barely any set that could be seen on the stage. The front office was worrying about when the picture was going to be finished. So I did it all secretly because the studio heads knew nothing about the Schufftan process. I had another camera set up on the side photographing an insert of a letter, and a look-out stationed at the door. When the big-shot from the front office would walk through, we would just be shooting the insert of the letter. They’d go on through and I’d say, “All right, bring back the Schufftan.” I did the whole nine shots that way. The chase on the roof was a miniature. We just built a skeleton ramp for him to run on.”

Actors, seemingly on the roof of the British Museum Reading Room. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

Actors, seemingly on the roof of the British Museum Reading Room. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

It’s wonderful to discover that Hitchcock used the latest special effects technology (replaced by matte shots and ultimately CGI and blue screen) to conjure up a virtual image of the vast and solid British Museum in a studio 14 miles away, to trick not only the viewer, but even the studio heads who funded the film.

Today the film conservators at the BFI, while using digital techniques to enhance the original images, in these sequences of Blackmail they are not revealing the real world, but in part the magic alchemical trick that is photography and film – where for a brief moment a virtual world was conjured up before the lens, using the same materials – glass lens, silver (on mirrors and as the basis of photographic film) and the creative vision of the maker.

This post is the result of some recent research I’ve done into films shot at the British Museum, which has resulted in a Wikipedia entry on the subject and a playlist on the British Museum’s YouTube channel. Neither is comprehensive, and I’d welcome any contributions to either of them.

Do support the BFI in the project and make a donation to Rescue the Hitchcock 9.

If you are a broadcaster or film-maker interested in the British Museum as a location, please contact the Museum’s Broadcast Unit.

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Filed under: At the Museum, , , , ,

What is the role and value of crafts today?

With Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman opening in two months, the British Museum has asked contributors from the craft world to share their thoughts on the importance of craft today.

First up is Teleri Lloyd-Jones, Assistant Editor of Crafts Magazine. There will also be a rescheduled live Twitter Q&A at 13.00 BST on Thursday 18 August 2011 – join the conversation using #craftdebate

£1 billion a year. That’s the simple answer, the total annual turnover of contemporary craftspeople in this country. Now that’s a big number, but of course craft is a lot more valuable than that.

Understanding how something is made, why it’s made that way, is more vital to modern life than ever. Craft is a language of material, provenance and making. It is learning the value of things. Sure, handmade, well-made things aren’t cheap but their value isn’t solely monetary. It’s political and social – to know how and where something came into being makes us more invested in it, so much so we become more responsible consumers. The handmade has unique aesthetic pleasures in itself but has also become intertwined with a whole bundle of different values, be they anti-consumerist, ‘localist’, green, or even just plain-old fashionable.

As soon as we widen our gaze beyond the shop or the gallery, we see craft appearing in the most unanticipated places. Take for example the recent trachea transplant, a world first. It was made possible not only by the dexterity of the hands of a surgeon but also the glass artist Matt Durran who made the mould on which to grow the transplant scaffold. Last year, an orthopaedic surgeon from the Royal Glamorgan Hospital placed his junior as a carpenter’s apprentice recognising the similarities in their practices: the tooling, teamworking and problem-solving. These skills are cross-disciplinary, neither art nor science, but always hard-won and always valuable.

So perhaps part of craft’s value is locked up in its confusion, the discussions to be had at its fuzzy edges. A surgeon may have similar needle-and-thread skills at their fingertips to a hobbyist and yet their contexts couldn’t be more different. We can all agree that a potter sat at a wheel has craft skills but what about a hairdresser, or a lab technician? In fact, is it possible to have a craftsperson who doesn’t use their hands at all to make things? Is burgeoning digital technology, like 3d printing, just another tool in the toolbox or is it a game-changer?

What a country makes is part of its fabric, its identity. Such importance has recently been recognised politically by the government’s launch of ‘Made by Britain’ a celebration of domestic manufacturing and ingenuity. And a quick flick back to George Osborne’s last budget and we can read about his ‘Britain held aloft by the march of the makers’. Even though the vast majority of our economy is not built on making things, still the cultural drive to make has intense political currency, it tugs at our heartstrings. What’s important here is nurturing and educating those who think with their hands, ensuring young people can discover their own talents and retain skills for a new generation.

As the skills and material knowledge central to craft continue to have great value it is the role itself that changes. Technologies advance at break-neck speeds and the public’s desire for authenticity grows making the role of the crafts crucial for modern life. Whether traditional or innovative, art or science, on show in a gallery window or hidden away in unexpected places, making has the power to deeply satisfy. And all it needs from us is a little patience and appreciation.

Teleri Lloyd-Jones, Assistant Editor of Crafts Magazine. Crafts is an editorially independent bi-monthly magazine published by the Crafts Council, the national development agency for contemporary craft in the UK.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Back in the lab: archaeobotany from Amara West


Philippa Ryan, Scientist, British Museum

Archaeobotany is the study of ancient plant remains, and I joined the field team at Amara West in Sudan earlier this year to collect samples for archaeobotanical analysis. Charred plant materials were retrieved on-site from sediments through dry-sieving and flotation. These samples were subsequently brought back to the British Museum for further sorting and identification.

Scanning electron microscope image of a barley grain found in an oven at Amara West

Scanning electron microscope image of a barley grain found in an oven at Amara West

At the moment I am analysing the charred seeds and fruits with Caroline Cartwright, who is also analysing the wood charcoal. The macroscopic plant remains are analysed using both a stereo microscope and a SEM (scanning electron microscope). Charred remains found so far include cereal grains (wheat and barley) and crop-processing waste, fruits such as figs and a wide range of wild plants.

I am also processing sediment samples to extract phytoliths (microscopic plant remains), which are formed when soluble silica taken up in groundwater by plants is deposited within and between certain plant cells. These silicified cells are found within many different plant families such as grasses (which include cereals), sedges and palms.

Phytoliths are difficult to identify, but have the advantage of surviving in both charred and non-charred contexts, so we can learn about the presence and use of plants in areas where seeds and grains don’t survive.

A palm leaf phytolith, scale 10 microns

A palm leaf phytolith, scale 10 microns

At the moment, I am processing sediments to extract phytoliths, which includes the removal of carbonates, clays, organics, other remaining non-siliceous material through heavy liquid flotation, and finally mounting dried phytoliths onto slides. Phytoliths are then identified and counted using an optical (light) microscope.

Analysis of these different types of plant remains helps us learn about the past uses of plants at Amara West in day-to-day life, such as for food, fuel and animal fodder. I am also looking at the distributions of seeds and phytoliths across the site to examine locations of plant based activities such as food processing, as well as whether there are any differences in diet between poorer and richer households, or across the history of the site.

Plant remains can also help to provide information about the nearby vegetation, for instance the types of grasses, wetland plants and trees that grew near the ancient town.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology

Ancient and modern: 4,000 years of the history of money in one room

Catherine Eagleton, curator, British Museum

One of the big challenges I mentioned in the last post is that this new display will cover a long timeframe, and talk about the story of money from its beginnings to the present day. Making a selection from the million or so objects in the collections of the Department of Coins and Medals requires some careful thinking – what should we include, and, of course, what are going to have to leave out.

This leads to some slightly odd conversations: which stories are we best able to tell? Byzantium, or the English Civil War? The Silk Road, or Indian Ocean trade? Thankfully, we haven’t had to pit the armies of Rome and Persia against each other, as we have sections featuring both of those ancient empires in the gallery. Once we have a clearer idea about the storylines for the displays, and the times and places that will be featured, we can work on which objects to include.

Weighed metal was used to make payments in ancient Egypt. El-Amarna hoard, Egypt 18th Dynasty, 14th century BC.

Weighed metal was used to make payments in ancient Egypt. El-Amarna hoard, Egypt 18th Dynasty, 14th century BC.

To help with this, we have spent the last few weeks doing test layouts of sections of the new displays. My desk has masking tape all over it showing the approximate size of the areas inside the cases, and the designers have started thinking about what the graphics and the labels might look like. Starting with the sections relating to the ancient world, we have been laying out objects on my desk, moving them around, and refining the selection until we are happy with how it’s looking.

A ‘wave and pay’ mobile device

A ‘wave and pay’ mobile device

At the same time as working on the ancient world sections of the displays, I’m thinking about the contemporary world, and the future. Economics and economies are dominating the news at the moment and so my thoughts have been turning to how we can try to explain these kinds of big money stories through objects.

At the other end of the scale, some distance from trillion-dollar government debt, I’m also thinking about the ways I might in the future buy my newspaper or a cup of coffee, and trying to work out how the new displays can reflect the future of money. Will mobile phone payments replace cash? Will the use of cash end up being only for criminals and money launderers?

The story we’re aiming to tell is 4,000 years old and looking back over that amount of time gives a long view on how and why people use money, and the significance it has in their lives.

So, all of our hard work on the object selection and the drafting of the storylines of the gallery will be worth it if the new displays give our visitors a sense of this long history of money, and encourage them to see money in the present day slightly differently.

The Money Gallery project is supported by Citi and opens in June 2012.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery

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