The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 7, Number 2, Supplement
Education & Training
May 1983


Craft Apprenticeship in Historic Site Museums

by Gary Brumfield

Reprinted with permission from Gerry Williams, Apprenticeship in Craft, 1981. Dan Clark Books, Box 65, Goffstown, NY 03045.

Cary Brumfield is a gunsmith, and is associated with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has the largest craft program of any historic site museum in America. Twenty eighteenth-century shops are open throughout the year and several additional crafts are done outside in the summer season. Fifty-four masters, journeymen, and apprentice craftsmen, and about an equal number of craft interpreters, are employed in this program.

The success of the craft program as an educational tool in this museum is due largely to the decision to staff the shops with skilled craftsmen. This has given Colonial Williamsburg the opportunity to recreate an aspect of eighteenth century life beyond just the physical arrangements of buildings and objects.

Craftsmen are employed to practice their trades in authentically furnished shops, using the same materials, tools, and techniques used by eighteenth century craftsmen. The guidelines for selecting these craftsmen are:

1. The craftsman should be highly skilled or capable of being trained to a high degree of skill in the techniques of his craft.

2. The craftsman should have an interest in the history and tradition of his craft.

3. The craftsman should have teaching and public contact abilities.

4. The craftsman should have supervisory and business abilities.

A program of apprenticeship training for career employees now exists in thirteen craft shops, and fifteen men and women are now being trained. Many of the master craftsmen, and all but one of the journeymen, received their training in Williamsburg.

The main purpose of Colonial Williamsburg's apprenticeship programs is to provide craftsmen to staff the museum's shops. Most of those who successfully complete their apprenticeship become career employees of this foundation.

Another purpose of the program is the preservation of the skills and techniques of the eighteenth century. The museum realized, in the 1960s, that the preservation of a craft could be as important as that of an object. Some of the crafts now practiced in Williamsburg use technology which had to be rediscovered or brought over from Europe.

Only by traditional apprenticeship can these crafts be protected from modern technology.

The length of the apprenticeship varies from trade to trade and is usually based on the achievement of a skill level rather then on the amount of time worked. Many of the apprentices start out with some previous experience, either from a hobby or some formal education. An average apprenticeship might be from five to six years, hot some skills require a longer training period.

Because the apprentice is working in front of visitors and thus most spend as much as one-half of his time interpreting his craft to them, the learning process is slower and more difficult then it would be in a private shop. Even ten years of working in a museum shop would not equal the craft experience a man received in a six- or seven-year apprenticeship in the eighteenth century, because the eighteenth-century apprentice worked from daylight to dark, six days a week. A successful apprentices today must love his work enough to put in many additional hours of reading, study, and work in his home shop.

Working in front of the public also affects the apprenticeship in other ways. The apprentice must be hospitable to his guests no matter how hard he is struggling to learn a technique or concept. He is often required to explain skills which he is just beginning to master. Some potentially talented apprentices do not have the special ability to communicate with the visitors, and those apprentices cannot be employed in a museum shop.

The apprentice's work must sometimes he evaluated and corrected while visitors are present. This shows the visitors how apprenticeship works, but unless the master is tactful, it can embarrass the apprentice. Both the apprentice and master must learn to separate criticism of the apprentice's work from criticism of his ability or personality.

An apprentice in a museum craft program must have a unique combination of craft skill, teaching ability, and cordiality. A candidate lacking in any of these areas will not succeed. In this respect, a museum craft apprenticeship is more difficult than one in a private shop, but in other respects it may be easier.

There is usually less pressure to produce in a museum shop, so more time can be spent by the master in instructing his apprentice. An apprentice can take longer to learn a skill because his income is not based on his production. The quality of the finished object is more important than the speed at which it is produced.

A person interested in learning an eighteenth century method or technique must go to a museum shop where modern laborsaving devices can be ignored. Some trades are kept alive only because of museum craft programs.

Another advantage of working in the museum shop is that an apprentice in the career employee program does not have to find a job when his training ends. His future can be with the museum, if he so chooses. Few private shops can offer this opportunity.

Finally, a museum craftsman does not have to market his products through galleries and shows. The large number of visitors usually provides an excellent market.

While all of the above information has been drawn from my own experience with the Colonial Williamsburg Craft Department, there are several other museums which have traditional craft demonstrations. A few of these also offer apprenticeship programs.

My personal assessment of the current state of apprenticeships in the crafts is limited to the museum area. Only 36 apprentices are now working in the 15 museums contacted. They are learning sixteen different trades. I think those figures present graphically the poor state of the craft apprenticeship programs of these museums.*

Only Colonial Williamsburg and the Ohio Historical Center are making an effort to train enough craftsmen to staff their own shops. The other museums either hire skilled workers as needed, or hire people who are put to work in front of the public with almost no training. Because skilled craftsmen are rarely available, the latter often become the only choice for these museums.

The problem is usually a lack of money. Few museums feel they can afford an apprenticeship program large enough to train people for all the trades they want to show the public. I feel that cutting expenses in the apprenticeship programs is false economy, because it results in the lowering of the quality of the visitor's experience, and this will eventually reduce income from admissions.

Another problem can be finding a craftsman who actually knows his trade well enough to train an apprentices and at the same time work before the public himself. Craftsmen in some trades are rare today, and they expect more salary than the museum is able to pay.

Apprenticeship can he a viable alternative to formal education if the length and quality of training is sufficient to actually produce a skilled craftsman. Unfortunately, many programs fail to meet this requirement.

The museums are partially to blame because some have shortened their apprenticeships or lowered their standards of quality to cut costs and encourage applicants. A complex craft cannot be learned in a two- or even in a four-year program. A person completing one of the shortened apprenticeships claims to be a craftsman; this undermines the public image of the craft and sours employers against hiring other apprentice craftsmen.

In some cases, social pressure has caused apprentices to demand quick advancement to the title of journeyman. Since it only takes four years to get a college degree, an apprenticeship of six to eight years seems excessively long to many of today's youth. Of course, becoming an apprentice in order to become a journeyman is very much like going to college to get a degree rather than to get an education.

Whatever the reason for it, serving an abbreviated apprenticeship is not a viable alternative to formal education. One of these programs could, however, be a good supplement to a college degree in the same field.

Because many people fail to complete their apprenticeships, I suggest that a person complete a four-year college program before deciding whether or not to apprentice in a trade. The college experience gives the individual time to mature and to learn to relate to people. The formal education also provides the student with skills to earn a living if he does not finish the apprenticeship program. I feel that developing honesty and professionalism should he a major concern in apprenticeship.

In the museum crafts it is very important for craftsmen to be honest when talking to the visitors about what part of the work they can actually do, and how their work compares to that done in the historic period represented by the shop. The slightest exaggeration will be discovered by a knowledgeable guest and will undermine the credibility of the entire museum program.

The craftsman must also develop a professional attitude toward his work--its value--and his fellow craftsmen. A professional craftsman will not take on work below his standards, do work for less than its value, or criticize another person's work for personal advantage. I think it is the responsibility of the master to set a good example and pass on a sense of honesty and professionalism to his apprentices.

The most difficult barrier which confronts the apprenticeship system is the lack of money. If we hope to hire top quality candidates, we must be able to offer them wages during and after their apprenticeship--wages which compare to what they could earn in any other field. Love of the trade alone will not draw the candidates with the aptitude and attitude that are necessary for a museum to develop a craft program which will attract visitors.

To encourage and develop the apprenticeship system in America, I think that educating both the public and the school systems about the availability and the nature of existing programs would be the first step. As a second step, I would work to improve the professional image and financial rewards of the crafts, so that young people would think about them when selecting a career. Finally, I would work with existing state organizations to expand industrial apprenticeship standards to cover professional craft apprenticeships.

I believe a properly directed national program for craft apprenticeships would benefit both craftsmen and prospective apprentices. In addition to the preceding suggestions for developing the nation's apprenticeship programs, I would like to see a published critique and rating of existing apprenticeship programs.

I think that some national organization should take the initiative in establishing standards and definitions of just what an apprenticeship is, so that short training programs or internships will not be confused with an apprenticeship. It should also separate craft and apprentice ships from art training programs.

* These figures are from 1978, the year of the conference at which this paper was given. Economic conditions may have reduced the number of working craftsmen in some museums since then.

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