National Endangered Skills and Trades Show puts spotlight on 'rare' skills

Updated: May 19, 2020

When you think of different trades it's rare that blacksmiths, bookbinders or horologists come to mind, but these are exactly the sorts of skills which will be showcased this weekend.

Organised by Endangered Heritage, the National Endangered Skills and Trades Show aims to raise awareness about these traditional jobs.

Senior objects conservator Andrew Pearce and senior textiles conservator Victoria Pearce. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

It comes at a time where many of these trades are at risk of dying out as they no longer fit within the Australian trades apprenticeship structure.

"We're conservators and we're more than just concerned with conserving stuff," Endangered Heritage senior textiles conservator Pearce says.

"We're concerned with conserving our heritage and that means our intangible heritage, our built heritage and our movable heritage.

"And it also means we're a good conduit. We're working across such breadth that we end up needing and knowing and networking, and putting this person in touch with this person so that things can be done."

It's this network which Endangered Heritage has called on to take part in the weekend.

The event aims to highlight how these professions play a role in the digital and why it's important they don't die out, through talks and demonstrations from those in "rare trades" including a taxidermist, a heritage locksmith and a French polisher. There will also be a talk given by the National Film and Sound Archive director Jan Muller on Saturday evening.

"You're always going to get new products," Ms Pearce says.

"A blacksmith, for example, in 2019 is making products for 2019. They're not making suits of armour. They're not doing the same work they were doing 500 years ago.

"They might be using the same material and the same equipment and the same skills, but they aren't actually changing those to meet the demand for now."

For French polisher Garry McLaughlin, this means passing on to those who work for him, the traditional hand skills which he learnt from his teachers in the 1980s. These skills are no longer taught to French polish apprentices but are integral to furniture restoration.

Still, Mr McLaughlin says his trade is lucky because at least there is some sort of trade certificate, whereas other professions do not.

"If you can do those skills ... you can do anything in the trade," he says.

"You can be innovative, you can change and you can work out how things are done from your hand skills. But if I don't teach my apprentices hand skills, they'll work for me forever. Which is good for an employer, but not good for the trade or the craft."

For Andrew Pearce, Endangered Heritage's senior objects conservator, the loss of these skills, "means that whenever there are any issues which are way outside of the box, people don't have the ability to reverse engineer the solution and fix it". From a consumer's point of view, this can lead to "bodgie work" done.

"If you don't have a trade and you don't have a profession and there isn't a pathway, then it means that any old hack can hang up a shingle and call themselves a restorer, or a bookbinder or a farrier," Ms Pearce says.

"And it means that the consumers are also be duped because there is no consumer protection for people who just call themselves that and are self-taught."

Endangered Heritage senior book and paper conservator Robin Tait is often in the position where she is asked to restore something which has already been 'restored' by someone unqualified.

"I think there's a lack of knowledge on the part of the general public as to what to expect from people who are doing this sort of work," she says.

"People are quite happy to accept what we consider a very poor standard of work. And I think it's also a matter of education of what constitutes the really fine and high end of that craft's standard."

The National Endangered Skills and Trades Show will be at The Fitters Workshop from 9am - 4.30pm on Saturday and Sunday and will feature experts demonstrating their work.

It will continue on Saturday evening, from 6pm at the National Museum of Australia for a night of vocational lectures.

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