The Endangered Material Knowledge Programme (EMKP) is an unprecedented initiative run by the British Museum. It aims to call attention to, research and preserve the crafts, skills, practices and knowledge of the material world that are in danger of disappearing.
Traditional ways of making things, from clothing and tools, to jewellery and houses, are endangered. In this precarious world, the diversity of material knowledge —the understanding of how to create and make objects, and the social values necessary to maintain the material world around us — is being lost at an alarming rate as mass-produced goods and industrial technologies subsume or replace local practices.
Changes to the environment and habitat loss through industrialisation, deforestation, appropriation of indigenous land and other factors jeopardise local ecologies and raw material sustainability. Meanwhile, large scale urbanisation and rural depopulation threaten long-practiced forms of learning, apprenticeship and knowledge transfer.
Find out more about the initiative below.
Support for research and documentation
EMKP supports collaboration, research and preservation. It gives grants to knowledge holders, practitioners, and scholars to support work that researches and records threatened knowledge systems around the world. Projects can explore the making, use, repair or repurposing of material objects, architectures and environments, or record the material aspects of performances and ceremonies.
EMKP advocates for close collaborations with source communities and the celebration of the diversity of their knowledge, skills and traditions. By working together with experts and communities across the world, the approach of EMKP continues the British Museum’s work to share and preserve knowledge of human history, with global collaboration at the heart of all partnerships. The knowledge collated and recorded as part of EMKP-funded projects is made available under a Creative Commons licence in an open access digital repository hosted by the British Museum and shared with in-country institutions and source communities.
Highlighting diverse material knowledge
Since its inception in 2018, EMKP has supported numerous projects in countries across Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and Oceania. These projects have brought attention to a diverse range of threatened material knowledge – from the making and use of everyday objects, clothing and architectures – to practices vital for community ceremony and ritual.
Past EMKP-supported projects have included: work on beekeeping in Kenya; broom and fibre-rope crafts in Nigeria; paper clothes-making in Japan; and threatened traditions of mouth harp-making and playing in Cambodia.
Current grantees are documenting: how social change affects pottery making and exchange in Papua New Guinea; the endangered foodway heritage of the baobab tree among the Mijikenda community of Coastal Kenya; the knowledge, skills, and practices of dry-stone masonry at Great Zimbabwe; and disappearing Tibetan material knowledge.
Advancing new research methodologies
EMKP promotes the use of new and widely accessible digital recording and documentation techniques that help capture the different ways of thinking and practical details that make up material knowledge. As part of project funding, EMKP grantees are invited to London for methodology training and collegial exchange. British Museum experts offer specialist training to grantees in a wide variety of documentation tools and techniques in media such as video, photography, and written and oral records. Members of annual grantee cohorts also share their own expertise, improving the programme’s abilities to support future projects.
Reconnecting communities and collections
Reconnecting communities and collections
Museums around the world care for objects missing crucial details about knowledge related to their creation and use. The British Museum stewards over eight million objects, and their preservation and future care depends on an ever-deepening understanding of them by providing access for source communities and strengthening knowledge networks. For example, an EMKP-supported project identified the likely maker of a Cambodian mouth harp that was donated to the British Museum which, for decades, had no name associated with it.
EMKP sponsored by Arcadia
The Endangered Material Knowledge Programme was established in 2018 with funding from Arcadia — a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. Thanks to renewal funding by Arcadia in 2020 — the single largest grant in over a decade for a British Museum programme — EMKP activities and initiatives have been extended.
EMKP is hosted by the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the British Museum.