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Ode to the Hand Made

The latest exhibition at Museum Boijmans invites visitors to experience the beauty of craft in detail but also be critical of new romantic notions associated with it today.

By Jeanne Tan /asdf 14-03-2013

Visitors to the ‘Hand Made: Long Live Crafts’ exhibition at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen should be prepared to marvel at the sight of over 500 historic and contemporary treasures that have been crafted by hand.

It’s surreal to imagine that only until couple of centuries ago, EVERYTHING was made by hand - because it was the only way. Today, it’s all too easy to take for granted the power of our hands in this machine- and technology-driven age.

Two years in the making, the exhibition aims to show craft in the very broadest sense of the word. The impressive collection of objects exhibited in the museum’s largest gallery originate from the luxury and everyday from the Middle Ages to today with a focus on Europe and the Netherlands. Instead of a conventional organisation through chronology, material or technique, ‘Hand Made’ leads visitors through the subject via seven clichés each of which have informed our perception of craft.

“We didn’t want to restrict the exhibition to only one view on craft but bring everything together: design, art, folk art, hobby handicraft,” says curator Mienke Simon Thomas. “We want people to look at traditional objects and new design with fresh eyes but also trigger them to be critical about why they like craft. For example why would a hand made product be better than its industrial counterpart? We want to raise the discussion about crafts to a new level and enrich people’s image of craftsmanship. We want visitors to realize how complex craft can be and value its nuances.


Many of these seven assumptions do play on the relatively new romantic notions of craft that have become prominent only in the 19th century in criticism of monotonous industrial production. Unique highlights the maker’s hand and the subtle differences in handcrafted products. Illustrated with among others, objects from Maarten Baas’ clay series, Jongeriuslab’s B-Set ceramics along with utilitarian pottery from the Middle Ages, this section questions if uniqueness or imperfection actually say anything about quality?

In pre-industrialised craft production, it was likely unintentional that products had slight differences: one of the qualities of a master craftsperson was the ability to repeatedly reproduce the same piece identically and flawlessly. The work of these masters who also pushed the boundaries of technique and material can be seen in Virtuosity, with the intricate 17th century collar by Grinling Gibbons being the showpiece of the exhibition. Yes it’s carved from wood to resemble Venetian lace. And what is exactly meant when something is labelled Honest (a hot term in marketing speak right now)? Is it because the method of production or construction is exposed or honesty in the sense of social responsibility?

Christien Meindertsma’s One Sheep Sweater, Piet Hein Eek’s Scrapwood wallpaper or Maarten Baas’ Plastic in wood chair: are they honest or dishonest? 

Along with the seven clichés, Mienke Simon Thomas also posed these 10 statements about craft.

1. Not everything labelled handmade is made by hand

2. Crafts date back thousands of years, but the peculiar value attached to the handmade dates back only 150 years.

3. If everything were once again made by hand, we would not survive a week.

4. Manual labour and technique are just as important as arithmetic and languages.

5. Being inspired by crafts does not imply a reversion to the past: learn from history but focus on the future.

6. Craft is much more wide-ranging than clog-making, pottery and basket weaving.

7. Learning a craft makes you happy and a better person
8. Not all crafts are high quality, honest and unique. There are also inferior, false, and clichéd crafts.

9.  Craft and technology are not contradictory: 3D printing and laser cutting also require skill.

10. Embrace crafts but remain critical.

Here are some of our own statements to ponder:

1. The word ‘craft’ has different meanings and associations in every language and culture. In English this is related closely to technique, while in Dutch it leans closer towards craftsmanship (vakmanschap) or trade/occupation (ambacht). Other Dutch words for craft include handwerk or kunstnijverheid (applied art). In developing economies, working with crafts is also interwoven with social empowerment.

2. If something is hand made, does it imply that it is craft?

3. Traditionally, craft techniques were often closely linked to a specific function and/or an object. For instance bee hives, willow weaving for storage and transportation objects or fishermen’s sweaters. How can new contexts be designed to use traditional techniques that are on the verge of disappearing or resurrect those that have?

4. Industrially produced items are also reliant on the hand. Think about your Nike trainers, H&M or Zara clothes and IKEA couch: they were made by someone in a factory somewhere. The really interesting stuff happens when machine meets hand or when machine-made is hacked to assume the qualities of hand-made. One of the more promising futures for craft perhaps?

‘Hand Made: Long Live Crafts’ (‘Hand Made: Lang Leve Ambacht’) runs through 20 May 2013 at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen.
Images: 1.-3. Visitors in the exhibition ‘Hand Made: Long Live Crafts’ in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, during Rotterdam’s Museum Night on 9 March 2013. Photography: Fred Ernst.
4.-10.‘Hand Made: Long Live Crafts’ in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Photography: Lotte Stekelenburg Images courtesy Museum Boijmans van Beuningen  

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