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.Read More