People and Know-How

Enhancing Intangible Cultural Heritage and Creative Diversity through the Transmission of Artisan Know-How

Enhancing Intangible Cultural Heritage and Creative Diversity through the Transmission of Artisan Know-How

The concept of know-how emerged in the XIX century with the aim of conceptualising the process of transmitting technical knowledge through experience and practice.

Nevertheless, artisanal know-how has been valued throughout history, especially since the Middle Ages, through the recognition of several crafts associated to the domain of concrete and advanced skills and techniques, giving artisans a privileged and recognised status in society.

Crafts have always been associated with the arts and craftsmanship, techniques of know-how transmitted from generation to generation through experience and exchange. In this sense, historically, this transmission resulted in a process of lifelong learning, and apprentices used to work with masters the necessary time to acquire the skills and techniques needed to launch his own workshop.

This system of transmission of know-how, in certain arts and crafts, is still remaining alive in some countries and societies. Nevertheless, in developed societies, from the industrial and technological points of view, this system of transmission of artisanal know-how is compromised by the deep changes we are living and prioritising manufacturing processes and consumption end, objectives introduced by the Industrial Revolution firstly, and nowadays, perpetuated by globalisation.

The manufacturing of mass and large-scale goods, the transformation of consumption and employment, as well as the limited access to natural resources, are some of the factors that have negatively influenced the process of transmission. Industrial and semi-industrial processes led to the extinction of certain crafts today at risk because they do not find their place in the market.

UNESCO identifies handicrafts as a set of products that

“are produced by craftsmen, completely handcrafted or with the help of hand or mechanical tools, provided the direct manual contribution of the artisan is the most substantial component of the finished product” and recognises that “the special nature of handicrafts derives from their distinctive traits, which may be utilitarian, aesthetic, artistic, creative, culturally significant, decorative, functional, traditional, religious, and socially symbolic and meaningful.”

Traditional handicrafts, as handmade objects, are in fact the most tangible manifestation of intangible cultural heritage. However, it is not the object but the know-how – which includes techniques and knowledge required for its production and transmitted mostly by oral means and by exposure to practice – the element recognised by the UNESCO Convention of 2003 for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage as the distinctive of the intangible cultural heritage of a people or community.

Traditional craft know-how is in fact one of the areas in which the intangible heritage of people is better expressed. Promoting the production and transmission of such knowledge within communities is an essential strategy to safeguarding collective memory. A collective memory that also contributes “to the enrichment of cultural diversity and human creativity”.

We must consider the inclusion of traditional craft techniques within the areas covered by the Intangible Heritage as an important recognition of the role played by artisanal creation throughout history and their role in articulating values between material and spiritual resources of a community (Benitez Aranda).

Nowadays, many craft traditions are at risk and deserve special attention to be documented before the “secrets of the crafts” so well preserved and transmitted from generation to generation, vanish into oblivion. Safeguarding them is indeed a strategy to ensure craft traditions continue to exist as a means of subsistence and creative expression and cultural identity of peoples.

To this end, measures that encourage the learning of these traditions and promote the creation of jobs in the sector, as well as the distinction and appreciation of handwork because of their cultural and technical value, are necessary steps for boosting the transmission of artisan know-how to the new generations. In this context, it is appropriate to promote the implementation of initiatives that increase employment opportunities and support creative entrepreneurship involving cultural communities as well as young people who can acquire this artisanal know-how as the basis of their professional path.

It is equally important to look at the diversity of peoples’ craft traditions as an essential element that needs to be supported because know-how is one of the structural elements of our cultural diversity. A diversity that is the result of historical interconnections, in which we must invest to promote intercultural dialogue, as it represents an asset and great value for sustainable socio-economic development, which guarantees the freedom of expression of individuals and strengthens social cohesion. (UNESCO, 2009).

In fact, in our time, a relevant number of new craft makers look at history in order to preserve knowledge and intangible cultural heritage. Although there are also many that are getting inspired by other cultures and use creative diversity as inspiration in their making process establishing a dialogue with other artistic traditions (Dupon).

Handicraft is today one of the sectors representing creative diversity, which is most threatened by globalisation, mass industrial production and piracy. The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005) recognises that cultural diversity is strengthened through the free flow of ideas and nurtured by creative interaction between cultures. For this reason, it is essential to support initiatives that value artisanal know-how as a means of creative expression of a social group, community or people, thus encouraging intercultural dialogue and people´s socioeconomic development.

Dalia Sendra Rodríguez

Researcher and Art Historian


References and sources: 

Author: Dahlia Rodriguez

Handcrafted Textile Garments Crafts & Social Change Learning permaculture and connecting to nature

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