5 November 2019

Guest Blog: Documenting the ‘made world’ and endangered knowledge

Mat weaving on the island of Manono, Western Samoa; © British Museum


 Today on the blog we have more information about the interesting and important Endangered
Material Knowledge Programme.  Thanks to Nik Petek-Sargeant for writing it for us.

In 2018 the British Museum launched a major grant programme that supports ethnographic research into knowledge associated with objects and the built environment. Named the Endangered Material Knowledge Programme  (EMKP), it is the first programme of its kind. EMKP is focused on providing grants for projects to record, using video, audio, 3D and other media, the material knowledge, practices and crafts that are in danger of disappearing. Traditional material practices and skills are disappearing due to mass produced goods and whole industries overwhelming local economies and practices. Access to raw materials and different landscapes and the disappearance of habitats and species are also hurdles to the transfer of knowledge and tradition to the next generation. To help preserve the knowledge, EMKP provides monetary support to projects and their documentation will be made accessible through an open-access digital repository. With a focus anchored in the ‘made world’ and the intent of recording ‘knowledge’, EMKP strives to go beyond documenting how an object is produced and mended, but endeavours to capture the social context around objects and how/when they are used, as well as how objects embody knowledge, social relations and are part of the landscape as well as how knowledge about the objects is transmitted. 
Kuikuro man checking a fish trap, Brazil; © Carlos Fausto

EMKP’s broad aims also raise questions that need to be addressed in order to further ethnographic documentation methods. Some of these include:

·      -    How do we best capture knowledge using digital recording methods?
·      -    How do we preserve culturally-specific knowledge?
·      -    How do we approach different knowledge systems and modes of understanding?
·      -    What type of metadata and repository structure is most suitable for such a diversity of data?

The programme is beginning to explore these issues through its first round of grantees who are now beginning their fieldwork. The programme awarded 15 grants in 2019, which includes research into beekeeping in Kenya’s Rift Valley, currently threatened by nature conservation programmes; silk production in Burkina Faso, threatened by climate change and cheap imported silk from Asia; clothes made ofpaper in Japan disappearing as cotton and other textiles take over; and the woven and ceramicobjects of the Kuikuro and Wauja whose material culture is affected by the advancing economic frontier. 

An excellent example of a knowledge system under threat and highlighting the importance of EMKP is the somshell money project based in Vanuatu. It records a practice that was thought to have died out. In the Banks Islands in northern Vanuatu in Melanesia, people have developed an extremely complex value and exchange system around shell money, which was traded for yams, pigs and other valuables. While som continues to be used as part of ceremonies, it was thought that shell money stopped being produced some decades ago. However, a few practitioners remain but it remains unclear if they have passed on their knowledge. Thomas Dick and colleagues at Further Arts, Vanuatu, will with the support of EMKP, be able to carry out detailed t research into som material knowledge and how shell money enters the complex exchange system from its beginning as a raw resource. 

Gold casting using the lost wax technique; © Kodzo Gavua
Many of the funded projects also draw on museum collections from around the world. The collections help researchers explore the diversity of the now endangered objects and practices. Photos of museum objects and from pictorial collections are also used as points of discussion with communities and in many cases allow family and oral histories to be connected to global collections. The documentation work also helps museums to complement and re-engage with their records and to bring collections to life by showing how objects are made, used, and form part of the community today.

The second call for applications for EMKP grants is now open and applications can be submitted here.  EMKP offers small grants of up to a year and £15,000 and large grants of up to two years and £70,000. The deadline for applications is the 15th January 2020. 

Together with the Endangered Languages DocumentationProgramme , EMKP will also open a joint call for applications for projects that intend to combine language and material knowledge documentation. The joint call offers an exciting opportunity for trans-disciplinary work that integrates the documentation of endangered material knowledge and its expression in the endangered language of its speakers. 

EMKP is funded by Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin and is based at the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the British Museum. 

For any enquiries about the programme, please contact emkp@britishmuseum.org

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