Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Waggler, the Knocker, and the sponge on a stick: science and craft at the Wedgwood Museum

I was surprised recently to hear several people in my university say that they wanted learning design to be more professional and less of a craft. I've always been proud to count myself an expert craftsman in it, so this was a bit of a blow and I wondered what they actually meant. I think they meant that they want learning design to have a better evidence base and a better grounding in theories of learning - which is fair enough, but if they're hoping to achieve the scientific certainty of being able to say "this works better than that" I believe they're going to be disappointed, because such certainties aren't available in the educational world. However good your evidence, however well-grounded in theory your learning design is, I believe when you've actually trying to make something you still have to resort to craft.

A visit to the Wedgwood Museum put the relationship between science and craft into perspective for me. One of the things for which Josiah Wedgwood is famous is the experimental quantitative rigour with which he perfected the materials for mass-producing his fabulous decorative tableware. One of the museum's iconic exhibits is a tray of ceramic slips, each having been fired with a slightly different glaze, which he used in the research for what became known as Jasperware. So that is a kind of exemplar for a scientifically based production process: the glaze needs to be mixed like this, and not like that, for the best results; the research says so.

But if you go to the demonstration area, where staff will show you how pots and vases are actually made, you get a different picture. Yes, everything which they do depends on the precisely controlled composition of their materials; the maker of slipware vases needs a plaster mould which absorbs water out of the slip at a predictable speed, they know and allow for the precise percentage shrinkage on firing (it's 12% by the way), and they can count on their glazes and pigments working properly even though their original toxic ingredients such as lead and arsenic have been replaced with less harmful substances tested and selected to still behave just as Josiah Wedgwood intended. And yet, when it comes to hands-on working, what counts is craft skill, with craft or folk terminology.

Jasperware vases usually have a decorative design in a contrasting colour. To get the decorative application out of its mould, they use a tool called a Waggler. It's rather like a handle of a spoon, precisely shaped for its job of easing out a delicate and fine-detailed sliver of clay, And they really do call it a Waggler; the demonstrator told me that there was a scientific name for it, but he couldn't remember what it was. It gets better: to firm up the clay in the moulds, they use a wooden mallet with its head covered with enough cloth to give it just the right amount of bounce, which they call a Knocker. And when they throw a pot or a vase on a wheel, to reach in and remove the excess water from the bottom after they've finished, they use a piece of bathroom sponge taped to the end of a bit of stick, which they call "the sponge on a stick".

The custom-made tools, or tools put together from things lying around, and the folksy names for them, are characteristic of craft and its culture. You couldn't ask for a clearer demonstration that no matter how scientific you get, you still need a Waggler, a Knocker, and a sponge on a stick.

The Waggler
The Knocker
The sponge on a stick

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