Includes interesting stories from the world of leather and updates on the Museum. Issued periodically.
Last week I was talking to MSc students at the University of Northampton about the use of technical trajectories in innovation. We look at history because technological change generally proceeds by the same core design configurations that define future developmental trajectories.
In industries like leather limited searching for new ideas takes place since there is a tendency to ‘swarm’ and mimic because of positive externalities.
Consequently when participants are looking for new ways forward there is typically quite a long period when multiple ideas are tested until everyone settles on a “dominant” design. A good example would be the 19th century evolution of the safety bicycle which came out of a confusion of hundreds of ideas experimented with.
The leather industry today has chromium tanning as its dominant design but the future of chrome tanning has been interrogated aggressively since the early 1990s. The origins of chromium tanning 130 years ago are fairly well recorded, but in the museum we have many other tannages whose history is not at all clear.
While we can, up to a point, replicate Moroccan Leather, Córdoban Leather, Spanish Leather, Russian Leather and other hugely important regional and specific leathers from history but we know little in detail about their origins. So much remains to be learned.
Equally we were quizzed in the session about the origins of brain tannage and the use of smoke. Lost in the origins of mankind these forgotten processes are only used today by tiny numbers of experts and enthusiasts, yet they were vital in the advancement of civilisation.
All this identifies the importance of getting the museum’s artefacts out and accessible for examination and research. Work by Roy Thomson and Prof. Yuko Nishimura in recent years has knocked aside conventional thinking on the origins and uses of alum tanning and in the leather glove industry my own work and that of Liza Foley has shown how many beliefs about the leather used have come from a not very accurate piece of propaganda written to bemoan the state of the industry after the Napoleonic Wars.
All these tanning methods are in our collection, and in each and everyone lies a magnificent story waiting to be told.