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Preserving the old Craft Skills



The Question


I'm writing this in the Maldives, having spent an hour last night visiting endless shops selling tourist tat souvenirs.  Sales of souvenirs are clearly very important to the economy of the capital, Male. 


Nondesript products are made by hand - something which may take several days or longer to make, sells for perhaps £5.  Does this make sense?


As a more extreme example, on a previous holiday, we  bought a traditional rug in Turkey for £100.  It probably took around 1200 man-hours to make.


Local craft products are made by skilled and dedicated people, for whom this is a very significant (or only) income - but should it be encouraged?  Are there better alternatives?


So here are some basic questions:


                     What is the point of tourist tat?

                     What should a developing country's policy be on the encouragement of its craft industries?

                     Should mass-production and importing of sourvenir tat be encouraged?

                     What should our strategy be for what we preserve of the old, and what we throw away in the name of progress?

                     Might there be better ways of transferring wealth from rich tourists to poor local people?



The point of tourist tat


Bringing back a souvenir of somewhere as a present for someone else is a specific example of giving someone a gift.  So how does it score for that purpose, against something I make myself at home?


Making something unique onesself as a present for someone says:


                     I have spent some time thinking of you

                     I have given you some of my time - my most precious capital resource, into making this thing

                     By demonstrating that I have done this, this gift conveys something of my feeling for you


A mass-produced souvenir (even one produced by a very inefficient process) does not say any of these things. At best, buying a souvenir of a place says, "I want to provide a very small token of my feeling for you - just enough to spend a small amount of money, and put in the time to choose something that you will appreciate."  It is much less significant than something I made myself, as it has probably only taken a few minutes to choose, and the cost to me in time or money was negligible.  Something which the recipient finds really attractive or useful is perhaps more significant, because it says it probably took a little more time to select, and it demonstrates a good understanding by the giver of the recipient's likes and dislikes. 


(The uniqueness of a souvenir is not significant - if it were, mass-produced items could easily have random variations introduced into each.  In any event, the uniqueness of a single example is not apparent - even if it is hand-made - artisans are remarkably adept at producing reproductions from a pattern or template.)


The significance of a souvenir of a holiday, is that it demonstrates that the holiday was not a period of unbridled selfish hedonism, and that I gave a thought to those back home who were not so fortunate.


The argument for preservation of craft techniques


Craft techniques are particular examples of manufacturing techniques - most of the current examples of which nowadays reside within the corporate know-how of large corporations. Craft techniques have typically been around for over 100 years, and are in danger of being lost on account of the availability of more efficient (typically mechanised) processes, or the increasing rarity of the raw materials on which they depend.


A craft technique that has developed and been refined over hundreds of years into something of real excellence, employing tricks-of-the-trade that are not obvious or perhaps even counter-intuitive, should be preserved.  Its loss is like the extinction of a species or a language - once lost it cannot be recreated.  Like a medicinal plant species, it might be useful in the future.  If (heaven forbid) our industrial systems were destroyed by some event (an asteroid hitting the planet, a nuclear war), knowledge of these skills might even be the difference between survival and extinction.


Because it is very difficult to describe a craft technique in words or diagrams (and indeed the best exponents of the technique are typically not highly literate anyway), preservation of a craft technique involves teaching a new generation of artisans through imitation of the master, and feedback on ways to improve.  The training is likely to take hundreds or thousands of hours.  It is unlikely that all this information can be recorded in a document in such a way that someone could pick up evey aspect of the skill just from the document.


So in summary, preservation of a craft skill implies having a group of people with the skill, who as well as practising and producing, dedicate time to training the next generation.  This group could be quite small - as long as it has critical mass to ensure that it never gets smaller and disappears completely.


In order for the excellence and breadth of the knowledge to be preserved, and for the artisans to have a pride in the excellence of what they do, and put in the thousands of hours necessary, it is important that this group has standing and status within its community.  This implies funding and resources, publicity (for public funding) and marketing (for commercial finance).


Traditional craft designs may also merit preservation, though for different reasons.  Traditional designs for artefacts are an important part of the cultural identity of a community - helping to bond a community together in kinship and mutual support.  However, unlike craft techniques, they can be preserved as examples, pictures or drawings.  A quantity of identical examples of a traditional design is almost as effective at bonding the community together as a unique hand-made one - unless it is a particular object of veneration that cannot be duplicated without losing its significance.


The argument against preservation of craft techniques


There are strong arguments against preservation of craft techniques - but they are all macro arguments.  They do not say that you should not preserve something - only that this should not be a widespread activity.


The economic argument is very clear.  The hourly rate for craft work is pitiful.  It is invariably based on piece-work.  It is extremely unusual for a craft worker to work their way out of poverty.  They would be much better off, were they to give up, and learn some economically viable activity such as computer programming.


In terms of its importance for meeting Maslow's Needs for survival, preserving the old is a luxury - like expensive cars or jewellery.  Poor countries should not commit significant scarce resources to doing it.  Primary objectives, like improving the health of the population or the standard of basic education should come first.  This is equally true for museums too, but the cost of maintaining a museum is relatively low, compared with keeping a team of skilled artisans.


Why should we make poor people do things that we won't pay enough for?  Were we to pay a proper hourly rate, we would never buy a hand-made souvenir again.  Why is this?  A large part of the challenge is that the skill involved is typically not evident from the finished result.  You cannot see the intractability of the medium from which the artefact is made, nor the hundreds of hours it took to make.  We will willingly pay ridiculous sums for objÍts d'art that have visual interest that we can appreciate and enjoy again and again.  This impacts us at an emotional level, whereas if we appreciate the craft skill at all, it is only that we are impressed at a very cerebral level that the artisan has put in so much effort and time.  Sadly, we won't pay for this.


There is a substantial opportunity cost in retaining the old - it distracts from learning about new skills that can be used as a basis for employment anywhere in the global village.  Unless he is a hoarder, a person doing something which is economically viable contributes through spending his salary to the goodwill of many other businesses in his community.  There is a social responsibility to do something that is economically viable.


Why make a vritue of doing something in an inefficient way?  Where new machines can do the task so much better or quicker, why would one want to do it struggling on in the old way?  If there is an argument, it is that machines require a support infrastructure of spares, engineers to keep them running and to mend them when they go wrong.  Unfortunately, the intellectual knowledge that went into the design of the machine is usually culturally and geographically far removed from the the skill of the artisan the machine replaces.  With that knowledge goes the power to determine the future. 


In Summary


Craft techniques should be preserved in small centres of excellence.  The artisans who work in them should be selected for their innate ability and motivation, and be well paid.  Training the next generation should be an integral part of their responsibility.  The centre should publicise the skills and training required, and produce small quantities of very high quality artefacts, ideally under individual commission.  To ensure that the craft skills are evident and appreciated, these artefacts should be accompanied by detailed information about the individual who made them, and the time and skills involved.


However, this leaves a question unanswered:  If tourist tat souvenir shops have little merit, and actually reduce the economic viability of the community through distracting from training for more lucrative forms of employment, how else should tourist destinations relieve tourists of their wealth and transfer it to the local community?  The standard answer has been through building hotels.  However increasingly, hotels are part of global chains, and much of the wealth they create does not remain in the country.  Hotel staff are generally not well paid, so this is not that effective.  Perhaps government-funded hotels that ensure the revenue remains in the community (along the lines of the Spanish Paradores) would help, if backed by training abroad to ensure that tourists enjoy the same high standards they have come to expect from from an international chain?


This question needs further thought!


Chris Moller, 07Oct09




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