Report for Woven Communities work carried out with Shetland Museum, September 2016
Shetland Museum has a unique collection of local baskets from crofting life on the islands, all well documented and linked to material in its local archive. Its collection shows the importance of local materials, the knolwedge of material properties, and the need for baskets in every aspect of life.
What we did
Because of the knowledge already available in Shetland museum records and archives, along with the work done by makers such as Ewen Balfour, Lise Bech and Lois Walpole, and the museum’s access to recent semi-professional makers such as Lowrie Copland and Jimmy Work, we all considered that our knowledge, skills and experience could contribute best to exploring future skills, intergenerational relationships, and to public engagement.
With Shetland’s very comprehensive and extensive collection of baskets, it would have been easy to simply look at heritage. However, curator Ian Tait wanted to ensure that not only did we look at the past but that we looked to the future, and brought out the question of how, why and if basketry is relevant today, and to the life of future generations.
Because of this we worked with a variety of local schools, and with two basket makers: Ewen Balfour, a great expert on local basketry techniques with straw, having learnt from the last Shetland semi-professional kishiemaker, Lowrie Copeland; and Lois Walpole, a contemporary fibre artist and basket-maker from the islands, who works with reclaimed and recycled materials, mainly discarded netting and rope washed up by the sea.
Who we met
We worked almost entirely with local schools, bringing in local elders and community groups wherever possible to share their knowledge. The schools we worked with were Baltasound, Urafirth, and Whalsay.
What we learned
In my view (Stephanie), working with children was an act of great insight by Shetland Museum curator Ian Tait. There is always the danger of treating heritage in a retrospective way. Working with children and young people showed us that not only do young people have an interest in the past, so that the skills we taught them encouraged them to ask their families about family histories and local heritage, but also that the children simply loved tradition, they loved to work with skilful people such as Ewen and Lois, they enjoyed having local elders in the sessions to discuss and show their work to, and they really enjoyed having a great expert, a museum professional, Ian Tait, to explain to them about their heritage and to bring in museum objects. All these activities and values also contributed to how they saw their futures, which as young people they felt very strongly, and with care. While this is in some ways a unique situation, in that the islands are a smaller, more contained and integrated community, which promotes such values, nevertheless we feel that this situation enabled us to see the value of handwork, skill and learning about heritage across the generations, and more generally, very clearly.
By bringing in elders to the sessions, the project revealed how much young people could respect the knowledge developed overtime in their community. Their concern for the environment, reflected in the work they did with Lois, was also palpable.
We brought what we had learned from this part of the project to the final part of our project work with An Lanntair and it was of great use in helping us working with school children there, and in developing intergenerational relationships.
These kinds of intangible response to hand skills – pleasure in skilfulness, care for the past and future, are rarely voiced, and difficult to quantify, but nevertheless, they form an important strand of how our project has been working, most especially in Shetland and also with An Lanntair on Uist and Lewis.