Preserving the intangible: The challenges and responsibilities of documenting material knowledge practices and skills through digital media
Chapter from the book: Palladino C. & Bodard G. 2023. Can’t Touch This: Digital Approaches to Materiality in Cultural Heritage.
The role of digital archiving in the preservation of intangible heritage is considered in this paper, using the case study of the British Museum’s Endangered Material Knowledge Programme. Concerned with the documentation of the skills, understanding, experience and embodied knowledge required to make and shape material worlds, this case study sits at the junction between the material and immaterial and the tangible/intangible, as the influence of everything from the availability of raw materials to cosmology are implicated in material decisions. Working across the globe, but with a strong focus on documenting knowledge systems in the global south that are under extreme threat of change, EMKP supports projects, researchers, and communities to record the details of material practice before they disappear. Digital tools offer a fluid and flexible set of resources to capture and represent these complex systems of individual and overlapping knowledge and are especially relevant in situations where knowledge is not catechised by western tropes of learning and linear process. Digital technology is also increasingly accessible and offers a chance to destabilise traditional heritage hierarchies, as the ability to carry out the documentation is decentred away from researchers to include communities and practitioners themselves. Nevertheless, challenges remain, notably how to collect such alternative ontologies, and how to manage and disseminate the results appropriately, protecting the rights of the original knowledge holders. In this paper we explore how EMKP has been working during its development phase to create a digital environment that is responsive to the particularities of material knowledge, recognising its fragility and urgent need to be preserved, but also sensitive to, and respectful of, the environment in which this knowledge emerged and grew.