Laurence Douny

Working with communities to record disappearing material knowledge

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 26.09.2019
Q&A with Laurence Douny, a participant on the British Museum’s Endangered Material Knowledge Programme
The Endangered Material Knowledge Programme (EMKP) is the first of its kind to capture and preserve disappearing knowledge relating to the material world. 

The British Museum scheme is designed to document endangered skills and practices in Africa and Oceania, offering grants to researchers to undertake fieldwork and training. They will then use these digital curatorial skills to work with local communities and record their knowledge and practice in the form of online resources.

The first round of grantees has just completed a training programme at the British Museum, covering documentation techniques such as film-making and editing. 

The next phase of the scheme, which is supported by the charitable fund Arcadia, will see trainees return to their communities to put these documentation skills into practice.

Museums Journal spoke to trainee Laurence Douny, who is documenting the centuries-old practice of wild silk weaving in Mali and Burkina Faso – which has been put at risk in part because of the climate and ecological emergency. 

How did you get involved in the programme?

Over the past 10 years, I have been conducting fieldwork in Mali and Burkina Faso, where wild silk textiles have become increasingly difficult to produce due primarily to the rarity of the raw material. 

Back in 2014, our team started to think about what we could do to preserve the material knowledge about wild silks techniques, which constitute a local heritage and therefore a form of identity. We came up with the idea of creating a local museum and craft centre, for which a thorough documentation was needed. The museum is specifically tailored for exhibitions and educational purposes and for both African and non-African audiences. 

The programme, which I heard of from a colleague, was a unique opportunity that would allow our team to accomplish an extensive and detailed documentation of wild silks practice here, co-constructed with and returned to the local community and as a means to make this centuries-old practice known and keeping it alive. 

What makes the EMKP programme unique?

EMKP focuses on local communities’ participation in the collection of material knowledge and practice. Therefore, the uniqueness of the programme resides in the community’s active role in the production of the digital asset as a process of “co-construction” through which decisions but also the actual recording of the materials are done in collaboration with the local community. 

It gives the opportunity to local communities to actively preserve their endangered material practice thorough the production of a digital asset that is subsequently made available to them and to others on open access.  

Can you give us a little background about the project you're working on?

Compared to the well-known Bombyx Mori silk, wild silks have received little attention. Long-standing and discrete, yet largely unknown West African wild silk industries have been established regionally for centuries. Our purpose in this project lies in exposing the cultural and historical significance of Marka-Dafing’s wild silk industry that is endangered. 

The endangerment of material knowledge and practice about wild silks lies first in the decline of the species caused by deforestation and the exhaustion of species in parts of West Africa, but also by bush fire and climate change in areas where the species fail to regenerate properly. 

These make cocoons difficult to find. The lack of raw materials has led to a noticeable fall of wild silk textiles production, which is obsolete in many places where silk is no longer available and is replaced by fake or vegetable silks. 

Wild silk knowledge also becomes endangered whenever a practitioner dies, especially in the absence of intergenerational transmission of the material practice, which is not profitable for young people, mainly women. 

The craft, which requires more than 20 years of learning, is too costly because of the price of the precious and rare silk, but also because of the cost of production that includes weaving and dyeing the required materials. Finally, wild silk textiles are also defeated by industrial cloth that is cheaper, widespread and fashionable in towns.

What kind of day-to-day work will you be doing?

We will be recording visual operational sequences of wild silk and textiles production from the processing of the raw material to the weaving and dyeing of the wrappers as well as filming the ceremonies such as weddings that involve the textiles. They will be filmed by the team and the members of the community. 

We will also create a catalogue of models of wild silk wrappers with a focus on the documentation of the language such as the technical terms and naming of the wrappers that are also endangered with the disappearance of the practice and of its ritualisation. Then interviews will be conducted on material practices, materials and participants’ biographies. 

Finally, we are planning to augment the digital asset by adding selected entomological and textiles collections in Western museums that will be re-contextualised in situ.

What do you intend to do once you've completed the programme? 

Part of our role in this project is to keep on promoting Marka-Dafing heritage of knowledge and techniques and to work towards a greater recognition of West African techniques of wild silks, as well as the integration and representation of indigenous knowledge systems and technology in scientific realms by emphasising Marka-Dafing women’s material science. 

In addition, in the context of global warming in the anthropocene era and in times of dramatic decline of insect populations across the world, our project seeks to raise awareness about the depletion of wild silk species in West Africa and to promote comparative research on African wild silks in close collaboration with local populations to develop strategies for conserving both the species and their environment on which local communities precariously depend, not only for textile production but also for food and medicines.