Culture Craft and Design

Traditional items may drive contemporary design iterations.

Traditional items may drive contemporary design iterations.

Traditional and contemporary craft operates at an interesting intersection within the Smithsonian and within arts and culture more broadly. Traditional handcrafts and other reflections of heritage such as artisan food and folk music have  very high levels of historical and social value, and are now finding a place within the business of cultural tourism. The processes and design outcomes of craft are certainly impacted upon by changes in materials and technology and are the focus of the annual Smithsonian Folk Life Festival. The 2015 festival highlights the culture of Peru including its traditional and contemporary craft, music, design, food and biodiversity.

This week I attended a lecture dealing with cultural tourism and how it impacts on traditional and contemporary lifestyles and ecosystems in this South American nation.

Culture Matters : Valuing Cultural Industry and the Arts for Development brought together cultural heritage and tourism scholars and practitioners to explore the potential for greater collaboration and positive social and economic impact. Cultural heritage can serve as a resource to sustain the collective identity of a people and a place. International tourism can be an important tool for economic growth, especially when it emphasizes community engagement and experiences based on unique and compelling narratives. Cultural sites, museums, festivals and intangible cultural heritage like music and dance are integral components of the most successful tourism destinations.”

Cultural anthropologists play a key role in supporting communities and ensuring that cultural heritage is valued as an economic and social asset.  Business and entrepreneurial strategies can be used to create a balance between the business of cultural tourism and needs of the community.

Given the global and sometimes exploitative nature of the tourist industry, people living in traditional communities in South America, Africa, the Asia – Pacific and Australia are faced with unique opportunities to share their rich heritage as long as they are not taken advantage of. Government and NGOs are now looking at a range of ways to support  more authentic tourism  experiences (if there is in fact such a thing) in order to provide new opportunities by empowering local communities  to shape how the traditional folklore can flourish. In areas such as America and South America, artisan craft is second only to agriculture as central to the economy and often practiced traditionally by women.

This issue sets us some really interesting questions about the relationship between craft and design as both share many similarities in being processes that involve collaboration  in order to solve problems. Traditional and contemporary iterations of areas of craft such as jewelry or fashion design are also able to transition from a traditional village setting to a fashion catwalk. The process of moving a traditional craft object through the design process to become a contemporary consumer object (such as a “handwoven” table runner) may be one of business acumen rather than preservation of traditional culture.

Interestingly the digital revolution and e – commerce have also led to a resurgence in handcrafts that evoke nostalgia and a direct relationship between the maker and the consumer. Artisan and farmers markets and websites such as, while consumerist, have the potential to create new opportunities for craft in the 21st century.

The lecture concluded with some salient points around traditional culture as not anti-modernity … but cultural anthropology is a process.

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