Visiting Basketry: Making human nature at SCVA (1-1)

Photographer: Simon Marshall
Photographer: Simon Marshall
Photographer: Simon Marshall
Photographer: Simon Marshall
Photographer: Simon Marshall

Basketry: Making Human Nature

Visit of Norwich and Norfolk Association of the Blind (NNAB)

28 March 2011

At the end of March about a dozen members of the NNAB (and one impeccably-trained seeing-eye dog) came to tour the exhibition. Those visiting included a handful of people who made baskets. The majority of visitors on this day were women, although I was told that several basket-making members of NNAB are men.



Dr Veronica Sekules, Director of Education, welcomed everyone to the SCVA. She put today’s visit in context by speaking briefly about basketry’s history as a craft and its connection to various human capabilities such as patience, logical thinking, and the ability to count and to follow sequential processes. She developed the ways in which basketry links to cultural beliefs, the protection of the self, and to decoration.

Dr Sekules was particularly happy that some donors had given special permission for today’s visitors to touch and handle certain items in the exhibition. There would also be a chance to handle other undisplayed but exhibition-related objects after the tour.

Many of today’s visitors retained some visual capacity; however, this opportunity to explore objects through touching and holding was especially valued. As one told me later:

It’s not until you can see something and touch something that you realise the amount of work and effort that must have gone into a particular article.

Another said:

It’s great to be able to handle [the objects]. To get an idea of the texture, the weight, the size…

The chance to engage with an object through the hands enabled at least one visitor to further her understanding of how a certain item functioned, and so come to a fuller appreciation of a human activity:

I’ve particularly enjoyed being able to touch the baskets. I was interested in the winnowing-basket. I could work out how you could actually do winnowing by looking at it and talking about it.

The renowned basket-maker Mary Butcher, who had been commissioned to make several pieces for the exhibition, spoke after Dr Sekules. She told us how she had learned from a Kentish maker the craft-skills which inform her work, and talked feelingly about the physical demands entailed in making certain traditional items such as apple-pickers. Her practice combines traditional techniques with modern methods and materials. She described making the series of works mounted on the wall of the curved corridor to the lower gallery. Here she had bent and worked the willow as if I were drawing, each willow-rod like a sketched line which cast further ‘shadow-lines’ under the spotlights.

Community Engagement Manager Bee Farrell completed the introductory session by outlining how the morning would proceed. Then the volunteer gallery-guides were introduced to the people they would take round the exhibition. At the end of the morning one of the visitors insisted on putting on record the contribution made by the volunteers:

I want also to say how wonderful my guide has been and how lucky I am to have had such a good guide.

The supportive atmosphere surrounding the visit, and the work of SCVA staff in organising it, was acknowledged by others too:

The friendliness, helpfulness and [supportive] atmosphere have stayed with me… Also the talk that goes with it: a friendly environment.

The Tour

The tour begins in the upper gallery. People respond at once to the commissioned piece which scales the exhibition’s dividing-wall. It is: like a nest, like a hammock, like the head of a bittern…The amount of work that must have gone into that. People touch the woven steel panel from Guy’s Hospital, and wonder about how the carbon-fibre chaise was worked. This is one visitor’s stand-out object. Someone notes how the construction of the chaise is akin to something irregularly knitted. For someone else it sparks memories of woven Lloyd Loom chairs, and a reminder of how strong basketry can be.

The bee-skep’s weave is explored by many fingers, as is its wooden base. The herring-cran from Great Yarmouth provokes much talk. One visitor remembers being taken as a boy to see the herring brought ashore. Another tells me that she went to Stanley Bird’s, the basket-maker named on the cran’s label, to work. But she was only allowed to stay for half a day because they didn’t have any ladies’ loos! One visitor explores a modern multi-layered woven object. She makes use of all parts of her hands: fingertips, the pads of her finger-joints, her palm. Fingers of her right hand track a particular strand of the pattern to see how it is developed. Watching how rapidly and yet how delicately she interrogates the object by touch, her fingers feeling deep into its unexpected holes and fissures, I am reminded of Jacob Bronowski’s remark: ‘The hand is the cutting edge of the mind”.

The objects on display generate much talk, some laughter, many reminiscences. One visitor tells me how she bought a basket made by an Italian POW during World War 2. It was made or rushes: not very practical. One way it seems that some visitors take possession of the items in the exhibition is by linking them directly to personal experiences (including of making), or by associating them with memories:

So much history here… When we were in India we saw people like that [the ‘man carrying many baskets’ piece]. That really is intricate work: to do things so tiny.

I can imagine some things were worshipped, like the things we’ve just been looking at [the corn-dollies]. The different designs had special meanings, perhaps a special meaning for each person. I have seen them in the church. Years ago there used to be someone who could make these and brought them to the Harvest Festival… Years ago, before the War, it was quite the thing to have basket-chairs for the house, and basket-tables and sideboards and anything. But they mostly came from Japan I think.

It reminds me of bobble-knitting. When you knit it you only knit two stitches on the thread, although you’d think you could fit three in, and it makes a net come between the bobbles. If you pulled it you could see the net come in between… Some of the baskets reminded me of that technique.

The exhibition also does its silent but powerful work of enlarging understanding by presenting new or unimagined items and ideas. For some, this also prompts further thought about aspects of the human, or human nature. For others what is striking is the diversity of materials, or the way basketry is revealed as a global activity:

Fantastic. I wouldn’t have known such things existed.

The exhibition includes things I’ve never imagined…. I’ve never seen anything like that ship.

It’s great… to begin to realise the amount of history that there is in basketry. It’s not just making brushes and mats and brooms and that kind of thing. It illustrates how it’s a global thing.

I’ve enjoyed being taken round, and finding out all about basketry, things that I did not understand or know, and how amazing is the use of materials, not just willows but all sorts of materials like steel. That’s incredible.

It’s realising the different materials that can be used for making baskets, and the different ways they can be used, whether for lobster [pots] or hats or for objects for sitting in the garden. There’s a whole range of objects in this exhibition which had a practical purpose as well as a decorative purpose.

For some visitors a single object is enough to open up a new perspective, to prompt re-thinking, or simply to fulfil a desire:

The very first thing I saw, the ‘Eye’… That impressed me. I saw that and it just started me off. It prompted me to think of design and the use of materials and how the light shone through and where to stand to see what I could see. The exhibition has made me think about perseverance and how through the ages people have persevered and carried forward tradition. And how much tradition means to people as well as design and using their skills.

I’ve always wanted to see a coracle. That’s wonderful. Takes my breath away.


After the tour our visitors take time in the Education Studio to handle in a more relaxed setting a variety of basketry-objects such as hats, baskets, fish-traps, lobster-pots and even a mango-picker, all brought together by Bee Farrell. A lobster-pot creaks as it is held up, suddenly making plain a new dimension of the experience of encountering basketry hands-on. We discuss what certain objects might be for. The mango-picker is especially puzzling. A visitor remembers a ‘safe’ from the 1930s, made of woven latticework, metal and wood, which would have been hung up or stood in the cellar and was used for keeping food or meat. It makes me think momentarily of the hanging-baskets from Papua New Guinea which are in the SCVA handling-collection.

That memory of storing food is also our cue to have lunch, and the end of the formal part of the NNAB visit. One of our visitors tells me:

The exhibition has made me think about the time and effort involved, and the things people have gone through to make these objects…It’s just phenomenal how the exhibition has been got together. I’ve never been here before. I’m really glad to have had the chance. I would certainly recommend people to come.

Patrick Yarker

May 2011