Over the last couple weeks of travel, I’ve encountered a wide spectrum of goods (and food) defined as local, or handmade, or artisan. It’s made me think about how and why we value such things, and how differing cultures seem, to an outsider, to consider them.
In Florence, Italy, I went on a Context Travel walk featuring the artisans of Oltrarno, the neighborhood across the river from the city center. Led by passionate advocate of all things local, Luca Santiccioli, we visited a metalsmith’s tiny basement shop, hidden in a courtyard; a woman paper marbler carrying on her family’s traditions; and a father and son team of etchers. As a city Florence is popular, really popular, and so not surprisingly, there are cheap, Chinese souvenirs in so many places but the love and care these craftspeople shared with us made their works sing. My small purchases will serve as beautiful reminders. What’s the future for workshops like these in Florence? It’s hard to say, and hard to say whether future generations will embrace the work. We noticed that as we passed one bespoke cobbler, that the owner was Italian, but the workers appeared to be Asian immigrants. There was something heartening in the fact that people from everywhere can become a part of local craft traditions as they adapt, change, but still retains spirit of place.
Then I went to Latvia. Although there are tourists in Riga, even in February, it’s not like Florence. I found different craft traditions, also shaped by both history and landscape. It was surprising to me how the craft traditions and design aesthetics also appeared to shape so many aspects of life. Exhibit designs often used natural materials and had a simplicity and clarity that seemed an inheritance.
And the mittens! Latvians are great knitters and there are hundreds of different intricate patterns for mittens, distinguished by region. In one workshop, I asked small groups to develop an interpretive label for mittens based on an emotion. And those mittens generated such great emotional content. One group had the emotion angry, and wrote a label from a child’s perspective, angry about itchy mittens and unable to go outside when mittens were wet; another group had joy, and talked about the trunk full of handmade mittens made by all the women in the family and community, that was a traditional bridal gift. Another group had sorrow, and talked about a grandmother, now passed away, whose memory lived on in mittens. And skepticism? One group wrote a label about mittens’ magic powers, encouraging a bit of skepticism—and laughter--in all of us.
I got quite a surprising answer when I asked a colleague about the strength of these craft traditions. “It’s fear, I think,” she answered and I looked at her surprised.. We are so small, she continued, that I think our traditions are one of the only things we have to hang on to. Needless to say, every part of the former Soviet Union continually found its traditions under siege, but this seemed to go even beyond that, to a sense that to be Latvian meant a responsibility to continue those traditions.
So what’s next? Italy is flooded by tourists, Latvia is losing its population to opportunities in Western Europe. Two sides of the same coin, in a way, in that the future is uncertain, and that dedicated craftspeople are continuing something that’s important for all of us.
And what can each of us do? As a tourist, bring home locally made souvenirs. As a museum worker, l, seek out these traditions in your community, both the ones practiced by longtime residents and those that new community members have brought from their new places. We don’t need to be a global village of chain stores, but perhaps we can be a global village of items that connect to place and people, that last a lifetime, and that remind us of the many beautiful places around the world.