Beyond the Basket: Construction, Order and Understanding

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: World Art Studies and Museology


Basketry has been practised for millennia and is one of the oldest human technologies. Its immediate importance lies in the provision of mats, containers, traps and barriers, all of which have been central to culture, whether nomadic or sedentary and whether based on an economy of hunting and gathering or herding and cultivation. Beyond its practical uses, basketry has arguably been even more influential on our lives, since it relies on the relationship of number, pattern and structure. It thus provides a paradigm for disciplines such as mathematics and engineering and for the organisation of social and political life.

The research explores the development of basketry in human culture over ten thousand years, and focuses on various parts of the world both in the past but particularly on the anthropological records relating to recent and current production in Amazonia, Central Africa and Papua New Guinea. The aim is to identify both the mechanical traditions of making and the ways in which basketry is implicated in wider patterns of understanding: such things as order and metaphor.

The main output of the research will be an exhibition and accompanying book. The exhibition will include ancient material recovered by excavation as well as more recent examples of basketry from around the world. It will also show the impact of woven forms on other media, such as pottery, painting, and stone sculpture and architecture. The mode of display is crucial, as it will enable people to experience basketry directly. More than most materials, complex woven forms are difficult to understand in photographs or diagrams. Qualities such as their scale, texture and colour are critical to the ways we respond to them and how we understand their structure and tactile implications. Given the range of uses of basketry: mats for sitting on or providing partitions in houses, cradles for babies, traps for catching fish or game, hurdles for penning animals or for land reclamation, the associations of the technology are very varied. Some are aggressive, others protective, some help create social hierarchies others are recreational. This variety is best experienced at first hand.

A wide range of research methods will be employed: reviewing the existing literature, studying museum collections and their often unpublished documentation, new anthropological fieldwork including filming the making and use of basketry, documenting and analysing newly commissioned work, particularly woven installations, and involvement in practice-based workshops both professional and lay.


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Title Basketry making human nature 
Description An exhibition including works from across the world and spanning three millennia, including specially commissioned works from contemporary artists. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2011 
Impact There were 10,000 visitors to the exhibition, and associated workshops 
Description Basketry has been a technology of fundamental importance in people's capacity to colonise the earth. It has been used globally in the construction of dwellings, transportation (especially boats), animal traps and pens for many thousands of years, providing humans with the means of survival in a wide variety of environments.

Basketry has been central to our developing understanding of structure and its relations to properties such as rigidity and flexibilty. The surface textures and patterns of different weaves also aided our perception of the close relationship between number sequences and geometry as well a providing a stimulus for applying decoration to embellish other objects.

While much that Basketry was used for historically is now achieved by other technologies, it remains a remarkably adaptable set of processes. It can be used with new materials such as carbon fibre, but also in the recycling of waste materials such as polythene bags and old telephone wire. Its use in architecture is increasing, as also in art production. The latter comprises a very wide range from experimental installation art to the versions of 'ethnic' traditions created for the tourist market.

Throughout all these developments, the careful farming, harvesting and preparation of raw materials has remained central. It alerts us to the need to understand and manage resources, while encouraging us to experiment and innovate as circumstances change.
Exploitation Route Because it develops hand eye co-ordination, understanding of the properties of materials, the relationship between pattern and number, and the basics of structure, basketry is a fundamental technology which can be used educationally at all levels.

Environmentally/ecologically two points emerge. The first is the need to manage appropriate crops for use in basketry (rather than importing them over thousands of miles and from contexts where they are rarely sustainably managed). The second is that synthetic alternatives to primary plant products can be developed which have (and can refine and enhance) the desirable properties of natural organics.

There has been no systematic collecting of basketry products by any museum in the UK. The heritage aspects of the subject are thus poorly represented in curated collections, and scarcely displayed beyond the occasional corner in rural life museums. The exhibitions generated by the project exemplified some of the many ways in which basketry could be presented to the public as aesthetic objects and structures for a wide range of purposes (see the website from day-to-day utility to contemporary art and design.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Particularly during the exhibition Basketry: making human nature, we ran a number of workshops for school groups, craft-workers, employing makers to deliver these programmes for educational benefit beyond the academy. The exhibition itself brought in 10,000 visitors, mostly local but many from overseas (North and South America, Australia and Japan for example) so there was a positive economic impact on travel and accommodation. The artists who were commissioned to create works and contribute to various forums for the project have continued to develop work from their experience.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Economic