The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) is a UNESCO-accredited NGO in the UK and is the advocacy body for traditional heritage crafts. As traditional crafts are not formally recognised as art or heritage, they fall outside the remit of the usual support and promotional bodies and many of them are now at risk of extinction!
At CraftCourses we naturally have a strong interest in and focus on heritage crafts such as weaving, woodworking, and blacksmithing to name but a few. Our founder Kate recently visited the Turner House Gallery in Penarth, Wales for an exhibition by Crefftwr – Heritage Crafts in Wales where she saw exceptional examples of handmade, original crafts alongside personal accounts of the changing craft landscape. The abiding message is one of hope rather than despair – the skills that are thriving and the people actively keeping them alive even against the very real backdrop of endangered craft skills. It celebrates and highlights the “Welsh context as a hotbed for craft” and reminds us that we can all play a part in ensuring the survival of these traditions for future generations.
There is however, no denying that a clear and present danger exists for the skills and crafts that our forebears handed on through the generations. Those once strong bonds are, in many cases, being stretched thin, and in many cases to breaking point with the apparent 'extirpation' or 'local extinction' of crafts that are no longer practised in the UK.
With its Mission Statement - To support and promote heritage crafts as a fundamental part of our living heritage – the HCA has an incredibly important job to do in realising its five key aims:
· Knowledge – researching the status of heritage crafts, identifying those in decline or in imminent danger of being lost
· Advocacy – communicating the vital importance of heritage craft skills to the pulic, Government, key agencies and organisations
· Safeguarding – ensuring that the highest standard of heritage craft skills are passed from one generation to the next and recorded for posterity
· Support – supporting heritage craftspeople to continue to practice, nurture and pass on their craft
· Engagement – actively raising awareness and interest in heritage craft skills with the wider public and offering opportunities to engage.
"Many of the tools, materials and techniques I use in my work have changed very little, if at all, from those used 1000s of years ago. There are many new ways to work with glass that offer artists and designers exciting possibilities but they have only added to the existing glories of manipulating light through glass that is evident in the great works of the 12th and 13th centuries."
The Red List of Endangered Crafts, first published in 2017 and the HCA's particularly telling assessment of heritage crafts in the UK, ranks traditional crafts by the likelihood they will survive to the next generation. As of 2021, it lists 56 as ‘critically endangered’ and a further 74 as ‘endangered’ based on intangible cultural heritage safeguarding principles as described by UNESCO. BUT (and here's the rub!), in the UK, we cannot nominate our traditional crafts to the UNESCO Intangible Heritage lists because the UK is one of only 13 countries out of 193 member states of UNESCO that has not ratified the 2003 Convention, because it is ‘not a priority’ for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport! The HCA is committed to remedying this parlous situation.
The HCA recognises that we have some of the best craftspeople in the world, revered in other countries for their expertise and prowess, yet rarely acknowledged. They are determined to change this and, to date, have nominated 23 wonderful makers, all of whom have received National Honours as a result. Their hard work, commitment and patronage such as that of HRH The Prince of Wales (President of Heritage Crafts in Wales), is sure to engender change. Rather than the Red List of Endangered Crafts being a “grim listing of declining craft skills: it is a conversation starter; it is a celebration of highly specialised, niche and sometimes esoteric skills; and it is a call to action”.
It is perhaps difficult to predict accurately the eventual outcome of these most precious gifts that have been honed and refined over millennia by the generations before us, but it is incumbent on all of us to not just notice but to acknowledge their decline and do everything in our power to preserve them. In a modern world where trends come and go; technology underpins our daily lives; and we live in a 'throw away' society, it is surely more important than ever to throw our 'bowed-felt hat' (critically endangered craft) into the ring and stand up for our heritage.