Museum stories
Before it disappears: recording endangered practices, skills and knowledge

We humans like to make things. From lockdown DIY projects to spectacular feats of engineering, we are ingenious when it comes to designing and producing objects. We keep making variations on a theme to get the desired effect – like making adjustments to instruments to get the right sounds, or changes to a recipe to get the taste we’re looking for. And we have even made things that make other things.

It is, however, more than just the love of making that keeps us going. We give objects meaning and value and they help us to explore and interact with the world and other people through the possibilities they open. Objects and the making of things, then, is about more than meets the eye. They help us understand and navigate the world we live in and are part and parcel of our pursuit of knowledge.

Mashiko Endō leaning over a table showing a Japanese paper vest she constructed. The vest has black floral and geometric patterns.
Mashiko Endō showing a Japanese paper vest she constructed. Photo: Daphne Mohajer va Pesaran

However, technological advances and global cultural interactions are re-shaping our world and pushing aside practices, skills and traditions that have taken centuries to form and perfect. Many aesthetics, tools and crafts are slowly being abandoned as knowledge is no longer transferred to younger generations. As a result, the diversity of customary skills, knowledge and practices is decreasing – sometimes disappearing altogether.

How can we keep skills and knowledge alive?
Doga and another elder make shell money while sitting on reed mats. They are using a knife and wooden tool to make the shell money.
Doga and another elder do a shell money demonstration at the Torba Day festival in Kweremande Village, Motalava Island. Photo: Sarah Doyle

In 2018, to help preserve some of that knowledge, the British Museum with generous support from Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin – set up the Endangered Material Knowledge Programme, or EMKP for short. We’re pleased to announce that EMKP has been awarded a generous grant from Arcadia which enables us to extend the project for a further seven years (2021–2028).

EMKP awards grants to projects that aim to document how things are made, their cultural-specific background and knowledge, as well as their traditions and practices. It promotes the use of sustainable digital recording techniques in ethnographic research, and as part of the programme, an online repository has been created where audio and video recordings, photographs, 3D models and other data will be made publicly accessible for people to use and study.

The timely and crucial grant we have received from the Endangered Material Knowledge Programme of the British Museum offers us the opportunity to create audio, audiovisual, documentary, and photographic data assets of this disappearing technological tradition to preserve the heritage resource for generations to come.

Bula Wayessa, Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota – 2020 grantee

Here is a run-through of six current EMKP projects that showcase the traditional crafts and knowledge that are now being preserved for the future – ranging from elaborate Ghanaian gold to Japanese clothing made from paper.

Indigenous gold forging in Ghana
(Top) A mould is taken out of an open furnace. A glowing mould is held in tongs while others lie in the embers (Bottom) A gold serpent's head can be seen inside a blackened mould.
Top: Taking the mould out from the furnace. Photo: Kodzo Gavua.
Bottom: A conjoined crocodile’s golden head appears out of the mould, made using the lost-wax technique. Photo: Kodzo Gavua

In Ghana, power and status have been expressed through gold and gold ornamentation for centuries, and this practice has been a central element of Akan chiefdoms and kingdoms. Royalty commissioned goldsmiths to improve forging technology to create evermore elaborate ornamentation. Goldsmiths also produced jewellery for both elites and ordinary citizens to mark different life stages and milestones, creating an environment where artisans could thrive and imbue their gold objects with layers of symbolic meaning. You can see examples of the skills and creativity of the smiths in the Museum’s collections of gold weights.

A golden conjoined crocodile ornament, with a central disc with concentric rings. The ornament is being held in front of the open furnace.
A golden ornament depicting conjoined crocodiles sharing one stomach. It is an Adinkra symbol that is known in Twi as Funtunfunefu-Denkyenfu, a symbol of democracy and unity. Photo: Kodzo Gavua

But as locally produced jewellery has become uncompetitive in the market, and as people shy away from traditional culture due to cheaper gilded alternatives and global cross-cultural interaction, the attitude towards local gold forging has changed – fewer people are interested in acquiring these skills and pursuing metalworking as a career. Working together with Agya Kwabena Tawiah, the goldsmith to the Asante royal court, Professor Kodzo Gavua and colleagues will document the remaining goldsmithing industry and the forging process. Their extensive archive will preserve the knowledge of how gold is transformed into ornaments with symbolic and aesthetic value.

Follow the full process in the video below. Find out more about the project here.

Histories of Honey in Kenya’s Cherangani Hills

Honey is one of, if not the, oldest food source of concentrated sugar and is globally valued as a remedy, for making alcohol, as a cooking ingredient, and a trading commodity. The millennia-long history of honey production is not only endangered because of the dying-off of bees. Changing ecologies and the (sometimes forced) disconnect between communities and their environments in which beekeeping was sustainably practiced are contributing factors.

Two beekeepers pull a large beehive up into position while standing on the branches of a tree.
Sengwer beekeepers are erecting a beehive made from a hollowed log. Photo: Sam Lunn-Rockliffe

In the Cherangani Hills in the west of Kenya, the Sengwer community’s beekeeping practices were closely connected to the ecology of the Embobut forest and the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains, which have changed markedly over the last few decades due to an increase in agriculture. Kenyan and British researchers Sam Lunn-Rockliffe, Timothy Kipkeu Kiprutto and Joseph Kimutai will record local forms of ecological knowledge, focusing on the history of beekeeping, how it helped biodiversity and provided a sense of custodianship, as well as contributing to the diversity and knowledge of apiculture (beekeeping).

Watch how beekeepers char a beehive in the video below. Read more about this project here.

Shell money in Vanuatu
Michael Tovoa holds up a string of som (shell money) made by his grandmother.
Michael Tovoa holds up a string of som made by his grandmother. Photo: Sarah Doyle

The small coral atoll of Rowa in Vanuatu in the South Pacific was once the mint for shell money, or som, a currency that was used in a complex exchange system across northern Vanuatu. People would sail for hundreds of miles to exchange pigs, yams and other valuables for shell money. Som would then continue its journey between islands and it was used as part of ceremonies and to build relationships between communities and individuals.

My mother used to produce shell money. The stones they used are still here. We used the shell money to buy food and to pay the bride price. I paid my wife’s bride price with shell money. This was before currency was introduced.

John Rah – project participant
A close-up of small shell-mouths in a vessel. The shell-mouths are circular, white with grey and blue spiral patterns.
Shell mouths before being ground and smoothed. Photo: Sarah Doyle

While som continues to be used in ceremonies, the knowledge of making it was thought to have died out sometime in the 20th century. However, ni-Vanuatu community leaders have recently come across a small number of elders in the Banks Islands in the north of Vanuatu who continue to make them. This unique opportunity is a chance for a team of ni-Vanuatu and Australian researchers Thomas Dick, Sarah Doyle, Sandy Sur and Dely Roy Nalo to finally study the production and use of som, and understand the complexity of an exchange system that shaped travel and production for centuries.

Read more about this project here.

Glass bead making at Ile-Ife in Nigeria
A group photo of people standing against the wall of a building.
Babatunde Babalola, the Olokun and other priest, and local community members after conducting ceremonies. Photo: Abidemi Babatunde Babalola

Glassblowing and glass bead making was once a thriving craft in the medieval kingdom of Ile Ife in the south west of modern-day Nigeria, and could rival the copper-alloy casting and iron working for which the city is famous. Glass and glass beads were important trade items in the region, and the patron deity of glassmaking, Olokun, ensured that glass bead makers and traders would prosper.

An Ife bead maker's hands rummage through a collection of glass beads in various shapes. Some are small cylindrical and red, green and blue. Others larger, red and circular.
Ife bead maker’s collection. Photo: Abidemi Babatunde Babalola

Practiced since the 11th century, glass and glass bead making has now almost completely disappeared. The skills, practices and beliefs around the craft remain strong in the community, making it possible for researcher Babatunde Babalola and his colleagues to record bead making with the few remaining practitioners and understand how it connects to other beliefs and the archaeology of this major city.

Find out more about the project here.

Paper clothing in Japan
A white ceremonial robe made from paper. The white paper has been dirtied by black soot.
A soot covered ceremonial robe made from washi by Mashiko Endō. Photo: Daphne Mohajer va Pesaran

Paper may not seem like the best material to make clothing, but prepare and treat the fibres correctly and it makes a strong and durable fabric. It was first made by Buddhist monks in Japan at the end of the first millennium and was later worn by everyone, from elites to farmers.

A close-up of a sheet of paper with black-and-white, circular and geometric designs.
An intricate pattern is created by pounding wet paper against a carved wooden slate and then painted over. Photo: Daphne Mohajer va Pesaran

Paper clothing has, however, slowly been replaced by cotton, wool and newer fabrics. Shiroishi, a small town in Japan’s Miyagi prefecture in the north east of the country, was synonymous with paper textiles and paper clothing. Today, only four people continue to make sheets of specially treated handmade paper (washi) and paper clothing (kamiko). Researcher Daphne Mohajer va Pesaran will record the knowledge needed to make kamiko and create a library of swatches in order to preserve and disseminate the history and techniques of this disappearing practice.

Read more about this project here.

Mashiko Endō leaning over a table showing a Japanese paper vest she constructed. The vest has black floral and geometric patterns.
Mashiko Endō showing a Japanese paper vest she constructed. Photo: Daphne Mohajer va Pesaran
Cambodian mouth harps
KRAK Chi playing a mouth harp. He holds the harp to his mouth with his left hand, and moves his right hand to play the instrument.
KRAK Chi playing his Angkuoch. Photo: Catherine Grant

EMKP also encourages researchers to include existing museum collections in their research to help illuminate and add context to objects that were acquired long ago. A Cambodian mouth harp (Angkuoch) by an unknown maker and donated to the British Museum in 1966 now finally has the name of Mong Koeuy associated with it. Locals working with Catherine Grant and her colleagues from Cambodian Living Arts identified the unique style of the mouth harp made by Mong Koeuy and with the help of his family were able to find out the history of this particular object.

I am very happy that I get to share my knowledge about Angkuoch with other people. When I can demonstrate how to make Angkuoch, I am very excited. Extremely excited! I feel happy about this project because I think the research team will spread this information widely. To let other people know more about Angkuoch!

Bin Song, Angkuoch maker
SON Soeun playing Angkuoch Daek (mouth harp), and instrument-maker BIN Song sits alongside.
SON Soeun playing Angkuoch Daek (iron Jew’s harp), with his childhood friend, instrument-maker BIN Song. Photo: Catherine Grant

In this short documentary by Catherine Grant, listen to a mouth harp being played and hear from the family of harp-maker Mong Koeuy about the instrument in the Museum’s collection. Read more about the project here.


EMKP’s aim is to make the results of these projects available in perpetuity for the communities and researchers to consult, as well as making it possible for anyone with internet access to explore the global diversity of crafts and practices. Many projects will also help enliven museum collections across the world, imbuing static objects with beliefs, meanings, and heritage, demonstrating how they are made and used in everyday circumstances. You can read more about past, present and future projects on the dedicated EMKP website, as well as read, watch and listen to sources collected by researchers.

EMKP also provides new opportunities to explore what museums can be, what digital collections they can include, and how they engage with source communities and global audiences through new digital technologies. Through EMKP the British Museum can continue to share knowledge openly and continue to showcase the world’s diversity.

Read more stories from the programme here.

If you’re a practitioner or a researcher and would like to find out more about how to get involved with the programme and apply for a grant to start an associated project, there is more information here.