Public History Program to Co-host Industrial Craft Research Network’s Inaugural Virtual Symposium

Historical engraving of mill workers. Text reads: "Mule spinning."
Mule Spinning | From: ‘History of the cotton manufacture in Great Britain’ in 1835 by Edward Baines. (Courtesy of: Wellcome Library, London, no. L0011292).

By Emily Whitted and Marla Miller

On November 13–14, 2021, the University of Massachusetts Amherst Public History Program will co-host the Industrial Craft Research Network (ICRN)’s inaugural virtual symposium Exhibiting Skill: Understanding, Documenting, and Communicating Skilled Practices of Historical Industrial Environments. Bringing together an interdisciplinary group of academics, museum professionals, designers and practitioners from around the globe, the symposium aims to develop conversation and community around the nature of industrial skill, methodologies for accessing and preserving it, and the feasibility of exhibiting it in cultural heritage sites that interpret industrial history.

Over two days, international presenters and attendees will come together to share ideas and build community, tackling a variety of themes ranging from the latest in knowledge capture methodologies, research strategies for accessing industrial skills when no living practitioners survive, the role of living history museums in preserving skill sets, and shared experiences of multiple museums who grapple with exhibiting industrial skill for the general public.

These queries are both timely and urgent. In the wake of deindustrialization for many communities where industrial heritage sites reside, connecting the experiences of industrial workers and their embodied knowledge and skillsets with present-day concerns about capitalism, labor, and vocational training has never been more necessary.

For many specific historic industries, from frame knitting to precision machining, certain skill sets are practiced and preserved by a shrinking number of practitioners, many of whom are also museum professionals. Can we reconstruct embodied knowledge when no skilled practitioners survive using sources in archives, visual and material culture? What combination of methodologies can most accurately document and express skilled practices? Do theories of cognition help us to understand skilled practice? Is it possible to interpret industrial skill in museum settings, where the scale and pace of labor is impossible to replicate? How do we build exhibits that communicate such working knowledges?

Regular readers of Past@Present know that public historians in New England regularly grapple with pressing concerns associated with the industrial history that is ever-present on our landscape. And so we are delighted that several museums and historic sites from Massachusetts will be present in this international conversation, from Springfield Armory National Historic Site, Old Sturbridge Village, and Lowell National Historic Park to our neighbors at the Hatfield Historical Society (the latter thanks to a welcome contribution UMass history alum Robert Forrant, ’94PhD. The rich industrial history present in these sites will gain transatlantic context in conversation with UK-based cultural institutions like the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, the Framework Knitters Museum in Ruddington, and the National Railway Museum in York. Cathy Stanton’s prize-winning UMass Press title The Lowell Experiment, often required reading for many in this field, is an apt reminder that public historian’s work remains at the heart of post-industrial futures for sites grappling with exhibition of their industrial pasts, and we look forward to their critical voices in the ICRN’s symposium. 

Interested in joining the discussion?  If so, register here.  To sign up for the ICRN’s mailing list, please click here. To follow the conference on Twitter, follow the hashtags #ICRN2021and #ExhibitingSkill.

This free two-day symposium features 24 presenters from a variety of professional backgrounds, academic programs, cultural institutions, and industries from around the world. A schedule of presenters is available below or available for download here with bios and abstracts of presenters. All symposium times listed in US-based EST time.

ICRN wordmark

Exhibiting Skill: Understanding, Documenting, and Communicating Skilled Practices of Historical Industrial Environments

Saturday – Sunday, November 13-14, 2021

Virtual Program Presented Via Zoom

Symposium Schedule

November 13, 2021 (Day One) 

10am – 10:30am EST (3pm – 3:30pm GMT) 

Welcome & Introductions

The ICRN: Who We Are & What We Do 

10:30am – 11:45am EST (3:30pm – 4:45pm GMT) 

Panel 1: Knowledge Capture: Heritage Industry Case Studies

Pippi Carty-Hornsby, Science and Industry Museum in Manchester (UK)
Preserving Skills and Knowledge in Heritage Machinery Operations

Robert Forrant, University of Massachusetts Lowell (US)
Have Knowledge Will Travel: Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Precision Metalworking Amongst the Corn, Potato, and Tobacco Fields of Hatfield, Massachusetts

Michael Kimmel, University of Vienna (AUT)
Capturing Skills at a Micro-Scale

Cathy Randall, Lowell National Historic Park (US) 
Makers and Creators in a Historic Textile Mill

11:45am – 12:15pm EST (4:45pm – 5:15pm GMT) 

Theory Spotlight: “The Challenge of Communicating Artisanal Knowledge”

David Kirsh, University of California San Diego (US)

12:15pm – 12:45pm EST (5:15pm – 5:45pm GMT)


12:45pm – 2pm EST (5:45pm – 7pm GMT) 

Panel 2: Scientists and Artisans: Artisanal Practices and Realizations of Designs 

Kayle Avery, University of Delaware (US)
3D Modeling and Pre-Industrial Craft: The Dominy Workshop and the Horological Gear Cutting Engine

Christopher Baber, University of Birmingham (UK)
Recovering Micro-Materialities in Technological Interactivity

Simon Penny, University of California Irvine (US)
Crafting Beyond the Range of Sensing: Machine Tools as Sensorimotor Prosthetics

Mark Thomas Young, Technical University of Delft (NL) 
Tacit Knowledge in Print: Codifying Craft Knowledge in the Enlightenment

2pm – 3pm EST (7pm – 8pm GMT)  

Panel 3: Artist Interventions in Exhibiting Industrial History 

Neil Brownsword, Staffordshire University (UK)
Beyond Preservation: Re-evaluating Intangible Cultural Heritage in the UK Ceramic Industry 

Jim Gravette, Ruddington Framework Knitters Museum (UK)
Jane Middleton Smith, John Smedley Ltd. (UK)
Artist Collaborations and Creativity at John Smedley Ltd/ John Smedley Archive Charitable Trust and the Ruddington Framework Knitters Museum

3pm – 3:15pm EST (8pm – 8:15pm GMT) 

Closing Remarks 

November 14, 2021 (Day Two) 

10am – 10:10am EST (3pm – 3:10pm GMT) 


10:10am – 11:10am EST (3:10pm – 4:10pm GMT) 

Panel 1: Living History and Industrializing Skill 

Tom Kelleher, Old Sturbridge Village (US)
Training Living History Interpreters: A Continuous Process

Karl Schmidt, Dakota Tinworks (US)
Working Tinplate by Hand and by Machine: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Processes

Peter Watson, Howell Living History Farm and the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) (US)
One Farmer’s Past, Another Farmer’s Future

11:10am – 11:40am EST (4:10pm – 4:40pm GMT) 

Theory Spotlight: From Habit to Behavior: The Historical Influence of Two Different Attempts to Explain the Adaptability of Human Actions

Daniel Black, Monash University (AUS)

11:40am – 12:10pm EST (4:40pm – 5:10pm GMT)


12:10pm – 1:10pm EST (5:10pm – 6:10pm GMT) 

Panel 2: Cognition, Tools, and Craft

Justin Squizzero, The Burroughs Garrett (US)
Eliza West, Textile Historian (US)
Jacquard Heads and Fulling Mills: How Machines and Craft Skills Unite in Early Industrial Textile Production 

Hugh Crawford, Georgia Institute of Technology (US) 
Cognition and Wood 

1:10pm – 2:10pm EST (6:10pm – 7:10pm GMT)

Panel 3: Interpreting Skill in Museum Settings: Why This History Matters to the Past, Present, and Future

Oliver Betts, National Railway Museum (UK)
Kirstie Blair, University of Strathclyde (UK)
Seth Bruggeman, Temple University (US) 
Amy Glowacki, Springfield Armory National Historic Site (US) 
Nina Lehrman, Whitman College (US) 

2:10pm – 2:30pm EST (7:10pm – 7:30pm GMT) 

Closing Remarks

Emily Whitted and Marla Miller are members of the ICRN Network and co-planners of the symposium. They would like to thank Professor Sam Redman and Public History Program graduate assistant Allison Smith for the program’s co-sponsorship and support of this event.

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