Adapting the Living Human Treasures idea in Flanders (Belgium): The case of craftsmanship

Writer : Ahmet Erman Aral
Year : 2023

The UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage places individuals, groups and communities at the heart of safeguarding. The Living Human Treasures (LHT), although discontinued as a UNESCO programme in 2006, introduced an earlier model of this approach and is prevalent in various national and regional contexts. However, it has often been treated with a limited view to grant honours and draw public attention to the excellence of masters, performers and other artists. On the other hand, as many actions try to find ways to integrate intangible cultural heritage(ICH) into education, it is important to revisit alternative practices that have put emphasis on human agency in the safeguarding of ICH. Therefore, the subsidy regulation for apprenticeship to craftsmanship in Flanders (Belgium), where there is no official LHT system, provides a relevant case that serves to align the human-centred approach of LHT with the Convention. An experimental practice that has been started by the Flemish Ministry of Culture in 2018 in Belgium, it is a remarkable initiative that addresses crafts communities in Flanders. Notwithstanding the problems such as the application process, the limited involvement of NGOs, the lack of a monitoring system and the absence of links to formal education, I argue that this experience devoted to a contemporary interpretation of crafts and craftsmanship can inspire others to mobilise and accommodate LHT systems into national and regional contexts with connections not only to culture but also to education, design, entrepreneurship and economy.

crafts, apprenticeship, UNESCO, Living Human Treasures, nonformal education, cultural transmission, Flanders


Intangible cultural heritage (hereafter ICH) has gradually become one of the important topics in the cultural policies of many countries and regions since the adoption of the UNESCO 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (hereafter the Convention).1 In the European context, this tendency is supported by some policy instruments such as the inspiring Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society (the Faro Convention). On the other hand, in a wider context, the Creative Economy Report (2013) points to the significance of crafts for local development. In addition, the ‘Flemish Cultural Heritage Decree’ (2017) and The Government of Flanders’ Policy on Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage2 outline relevant actions to be taken, also emphasising the term ‘heritage communities.’ This term is defined in the Faro Convention as the ‘people who value specific aspects of cultural heritage which they wish, within the framework of public action, to sustain and transmit to future generations’ (2005, 2). As a further step, in Flanders, policymakers have added the words ‘and organisations’ after the word ‘people’ in Flemish Heritage Decree, changing the potential of the text (Jacobs 2020, 287).

With reference to the developments outlined above suggesting the human agency in safeguarding, it is necessary to mention the brief chronology that led to the creation of Living Human Treasures (LHT) programmes in numerous countries and its reflections in Flanders. The legal regulations dedicated to the safeguarding of the domains related to ICH extend back to the Japanese Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties (1950). On the other hand, the Republic of Korea’s Cultural Property Protection Law of 1962 paved the way for accumulation of experience to submit a proposal to UNESCO Executive Board to establish Living Human Treasures programme in 1993 (Aikawa-Faure 2014, 38–39, 47), notwithstanding some problems (Yim 2004, 11; Jongsung 2004, 187). However, while there is a certain trend in ICH literature to emphasise Japan and the Republic of Korea as the first promoters of the topic, it should be noted that similar efforts to support craftsmanship were also present in Hungary (Csonka-Takács and Illés 2017, 132–138) and Czechia (Šimša 2017, 150) from the 1950 and 1960s. Today, LHT continues to influence and inspire cultural policies in many countries in different ways (Gauthier 2021).3

This research investigates one of the promising initiatives that can encourage decision makers, experts, NGOs and researchers to rethink the function of LHT systems and mobilise them as an integral driving force of cultural policies on the future of crafts. The pilot project in the form of a subsidy regulation (grants for passing on craftsmanship) was started in 2018. Facilitated by the UNESCO-accredited NGO Workshop Intangible Heritage Flanders, it represents a pertinent case not only to question the meaning and functions of LHT systems today but also to reflect on nonformal education and modalities for master–apprentice relations in order to search for ways to adjust and accommodate LHT systems’ logic of recognition into the broader context of the Convention. The Flemish initiative employs a ‘not reactive but proactive’ (personal communication, 2 March 2022) approach that corresponds to the contemporary economic, cultural, educational and social needs and resources, as emphasised by Jorijn Neyrinck, the director of the above-mentioned NGO.

The purpose of this paper is to introduce and analyse the safeguarding vision presented in this pilot project and how nonformal learning in crafts has taken place in community settings in Flanders. Can this case help rethink what crafts and craftsmanship mean today and, more importantly, find ways to insert LHT programmes in nonformal education? In other words, can it help functionalise LHT programmes, which are usually seen as limited to official titles and recognition to tradition bearers and practitioners in many countries? Can it be more? Besides, the perspective in Flanders can also be considered a call to realise true potential in LHT programmes by tweaking them and connecting them to Article 14 of the Convention. It serves better when taken with reference to ‘specific educational and training programmes within the communities and groups concerned.’ Based on the problems identified, this study also includes some minor suggestions on how to develop from this pilot project into a successful programme in the coming years.

Method and data

This article is based on a literature review and the results of interviews that took place between January and June 2022. 4 The literature review explores field reports, vision papers, regulations and guidebooks produced or supported by the Flemish government since 2018 in relation to the subsidy regulation. The information and experiences extracted from these resources have been incorporated into the paper in a way that reveals distinctive characteristics of this pilot project. The aim is to evaluate a specific and dynamic interpretation of LHT system that is not limited to the cultural sector but also seeks for contact points in education, economy, design and entrepreneurship. As mentioned by Sophie Muyllaert of the Flemish Ministry of Culture, the Department of Culture, Youth and Media, ‘it is not just knowledge to be transmitted but also giving people incentives and become an entrepreneur to make money out of it’ (personal communication, 4 February 2022).

Online and face-to-face interviews with 10 informants from January to June 2022 gave me a good grasp of the project, especially about the background of the project and current experiences, challenges and insights that are not reflected in written sources. The semi-structured, open-ended and in-depth interviews were conducted with representatives from the Flemish Ministry of Culture (Sophie Muyllaert) and two prominent heritage NGOs with decisive roles – that is, the Workshop Intangible Heritage Flanders(Jorijn Neyrinck) and the Center for Industrial Heritage Flanders (Joeri Januarius) – one expert in the field of heritage studies at the University of Antwerp (Marc Jacobs) and five masters and one apprentice who received grants for their projects between January 2019 and June 2022.5

This paper first addresses the introduction, main characteristics and significance of the project, followed by an evaluation of the relevance of the Convention’s approach to safeguarding ICH through education and the structure and implementation of the subsidy regulation as a form of nonformal education. Next, the interview materials are analysed in terms of the problems between masters and apprentices, challenges arising from unmonitored autonomy of the participants and the involvement of NGOs as mediators in the application and implementation process. The article concludes by drawing attention to the need to reconsider the meaning and functions of LHT systems, which leads me to assert that, compared to formal education, context-specific actions in nonformal education equally serves to interpret and align the logic of LHT systems with the Convention and expand the possibilities to connect these systems to other policy frameworks.

Crafts revisited through the exploration of new forms of transmission: an innovative cultural subsidy regulation for craftsmanship in Flanders

To support the transmission and viability of crafts in Flanders, a grant system for passing on craftsmanship was started by the Flemish Ministry of Culture, the Department of Culture, Youth and Media in 2018 and facilitated, among others, mainly by the NGO Workshop Intangible Heritage Flanders in close cooperation with other NGOs with specific thematic expertise.6 Although considered a pilot project at this stage, it is a well-thought-out initiative developed based on a particular vision of transmission extending over a period of time. As can be read between the lines of the vision note Government of Flanders’ policy on safeguarding intangible cultural heritage, its preliminary conception and preparatory work from 2010 onwards have directly been related to the policy domains of culture, economy and work, while the focus of policy is on the master–apprentice modes of transmission in the field of ICH (Government of Flanders Arts and Heritage 2010, 171–177). To take this vision to the next level in the following years, the policy report Virtuoos Vlaanderen was published in 2014 with the cooperation of the NGOs such as Tapis Plein (the predecessor of the current Workshop Intangible Heritage Flanders), the Center for Industrial Heritage Flanders (ETWIE), FARO Flemish Interface for Cultural Heritage, the Flemish UNESCO Commission and the Flemish government. This report is an important source to understand the foundations of the project, as the findings of Virtuoos Vlaanderen helped convince the Minister for Culture, Sven Gatz, and his cabinet, as well as the Flemish Ministry of Culture, to give initial shape to the pilot project. For Neyrinck, it was also a major step to start to ‘build a network of NGOs’ (personal communication, 2 March 2022) around living heritage and future initiatives on apprenticeship in crafts. In addition, another strategically constructed report A Future for Crafts (Vandenbulcke 2015), which is the product of field research in Flanders in 2012–2015, has also contributed to recognising the need to establish a system on apprenticeship in crafts.

The outcome of the search for ways LHT can serve as a lever for ICH policy in Flanders and also for a contemporary heritage policy that establishes links to other policy domains and existing social initiatives launched from other perspectives (2014, 10–11, 66), Virtuoos Vlaanderen builds upon the results of in-depth interviews with craftspeople and experts between 2012 and 2014 in Flanders to discover the feasibility and methods to invest in a specific, cross-border project, unearth the opportunities to expand the reach of craftsmanship in various areas of policy, and eventually contribute to the design of a tailored interpretation of LHT. Designed as an experimental subsidy regulation and pilot project that is funded by the Ministry as a public intervention in the form of ‘direct public expenditure’ (Klamer et al. 2013, 44), the aim of the project is to reinterpret and functionalise the Flemish variant of LHT programme in Flanders and transmit craftsmanship to future generations, connecting it to innovative, contemporary economic, social and cultural interpretations of crafts. The reference in the report to Article 18 of the Convention on programmes and projects and the recognition that the domains of ‘work’, ‘education’ and ‘amateur arts’ are significant for transmitting knowledge and skills (2014, 56, 59) not only reinforces this ambition but also indicates the desire to use apprenticeship, thus ‘education’, to increase the relevancy of both the logic of LHT programmes around the world and the Convention. Even though Flanders currently does not have an official LHT programme, it is remarkable that the subsidy regulation on craftsmanship stands as a distinctive approach to LHT, concentrating on ‘transmission’ in a flexible and occasionally nontraditional mode of master–apprentice relations through a network of regional stakeholders rather than primarily selecting or recognising ‘outstanding’ representatives in various domains of ICH.

Based on the joint application and mutual agreement of one master and up to four or five apprentices as ‘equal’ partners to work out the course of training (method, aim, budget, location and time of training, purchase of materials, use of skills and knowledge afterwards, etc.) for a maximum period of 24 months, the Flemish government has awarded 2,750,000 euros of project grants in total (the upper limit is currently 30,000 euros for each partnership) for 231 masters and apprentices in three cycles since 2018. This is a significant investment in transmission and appreciation of crafts in Flanders.7 This investment seems to be a part of the recent Flemish policy to allocate relatively higher financial resources for organisations operating in the cultural heritage sector(Vermeersch and Havermans 2021, 37). As mentioned in Belgium’s latest periodic report submitted to UNESCO, one of the distinctive aspects of this pilot project is the broad interpretation of craftsmanship, not only addressing ‘traditional’ crafts but also ‘applied arts or performing arts about intangible cultural heritage’ (2021, 92), varying from tattoo making, artisanal beer brewing, gin and liquor distilling to bread-baking techniques, processing of local medicinal plants, industrial knitting, beekeeping, martial arts, historical clown entrances and so on. However, Januarius has expressed that the suggestion that some priorities in favour of some endangered crafts should be made, and the funding should not be open to every form of ICH at least in the first cycle, but this was not followed by the Flemish Ministry of Culture (personal communication, 25 January 2022). On the other hand, Neyrinck states that the ‘current model does not really focus on “crafts crafts”, but it concentrates on craftsmanship in all domains of living heritage, which was one of our suggestions to keep it open and support other types of living heritage’(personal communication, 2 March 2022). It therefore seems that there was no full consensus on the degree of inclusiveness or better zones of ‘exclusion’ in the planning of the project.

Although it is relatively early to discuss its overall influence on craftsmanship and other policy domains, the project seems to introduce a vision to transform and expand the concept of crafts, relations between and profiles of masters and apprentices, and one-to-one, unidirectional teaching methods, which might stimulate innovative techniques and production processes through ‘mutual’ planning and learning. In addition, the broader perception of crafts and the framework of partnership mentioned above have been complemented by the engagement of the ICH network and communities in Flanders. As stated in Belgium’s latest periodic report, Workshop Intangible Heritage Flanders is the main body that facilitates the implementation of this pilot project, in close cooperation with other competent bodies such as ETWIE and Bokrijk Craftsmanship & Heritage as well as regional and local heritage cells or units which foster participation of communities, groups and individuals through providing international knowledge and practices in the field of ICH and co-developing toolkits for future policy (2021, 39–41, 62); these regional and local NGOs and groups also help applicants with application files and procedures, help them find partners and assist in conflict resolution when needed. In this regard, the role of NGOs suggests the term ‘systems conveners’ (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner 2015), in the sense that they bring different people from different locations together across traditional boundaries to work on something, facilitate interactions and translate where necessary so that people understand each other. As expressed by Klamer, Mignosa and Petrova, the involvement of NGOs might be beneficial to help diminish any kinds of control on cultural policies to ensure ‘socially preferable outcome’ (2013, 39). Therefore, concerning its vision and the involvement of ICH network in its design and execution, the subsidy regulation seems to differentiate from other LHT systems, with a concrete desire to render LHT functional and integrate it not just into cultural policies but also into social, economic and educational plans in a feasible way that is coherent with regional and local experiences and needs. That this is done through nonformal education also enables the project to expand its reach, taking advantage of the relatively flexible and adaptive character of this type of education, compared to the less dynamic, more structured and rather strict nature of formal education. Besides, it highlights the equally important role of nonformal education in safeguarding ICH, in which formal education has been predominantly employed by the State Parties, as can be observed in the periodic reports submitted to UNESCO.8

Economic relevance and the emphasis on mutual learning

The project aspires to pave the way for a productive and consistent cooperation between masters and apprentices. As expressed by Januarius, a new system in crafts ‘might have some added value compared to formal education systems that are already in place’. This same  logic proposes that projects by masters and apprentices should not be available, or should only be offered in a limited way, in Flemish formal education systems. In Januarius’s opinion, this attitude is also important ‘to prevent that there is some unhealthy competition between formal and nonformal educational systems.’ Everyone he interviewed in 2012–2014 agreed that ‘it is very important to give enough space and time and also financial support to masters and apprentices in order to get a real cooperation between them, a real transmission of knowledge’ (personal communication, 25 January 2022). As Januarius states, realising the drawback in the rather one-way relationship in the ‘Master of Art’ (Maîtres d’Art) system in France, the masters who were interviewed have been said to underscore that ‘it should not be a oneway relationship, not necessarily one to one. It could be a small group, with maximum four students’ (personal communication, 25 January 2022). On the other hand, as reiterated by Neyrinck from the Workshop Intangible Heritage Flanders, this perspective on the relationship between masters and apprentices has not been regarded as something hierarchical and one learns from the other. Now it is more like a ‘dialogical approach’ (personal communication, 2 March 2022). As for the complementary role assigned to the project that stands for filling the gaps in crafts education where schools fail to satisfy, one of the masters thinks that the subsidy represents a remarkable opportunity as a tool of nonformal education that works for the viability of crafts:

First, it was possible to teach crafts in the context of conservation-restoration. But over the years, the scope has shifted from manual handling to analytical conservation and restoration. So, it lost its craftsmanship aspects which have advantages and disadvantages. This project enabled to teach crafts in a private way and teach the fading aspects of craftsmanship that we cannot teach in such education programmes. (personal communication, 5 May 2022)

Looking at the opinions and aspirations of the NGOs in charge, two particular aspects of the project need to be elaborated. First, it is important to see the masters’ experience on the ground and examine how the approach to ‘economic aspects’ and ‘mutual learning’ mentioned above is interpreted. While stressing the significance of the Flemish government’s support for up to two years, one of the masters said that
It is a life-changing event for me to win a scholarship. It enabled me to work full-time as woodworker, craftsman. I had a busy day job and worked less to create some time for carving and teaching. The grant was enough that I could take a risk, so I quit my job and worked really hard. This money was a steady income for my next two years, and that was the push I needed to start what I love […] I used to do spoon carving and woodworking, but now I am spoon carver and green woodworker. (personal communication, 2 June 2022)

As can be seen from this viewpoint, economic relevance is regarded as one of the key issues for the viability of crafts, and the project is a valuable response to encourage craftspeople to concentrate on producing and transmitting their knowledge and skills. A similar view is shared by one of the apprentices as well:
I think they are paying for your time in a way, especially for teachers and the time they invest in teaching us and not in their work. As long as you do the project, the money is not necessarily going to the project. It is going to compensate for the time. (personal communication, 17 June 2022)

As another master emphasises, ‘when you do not make enough money while you learn the craft, there is a tension between “learning process” and “staying alive”’ (personal communication, 5 May 2022). Enabling masters to provide funds also for their apprentices, the project can therefore be said to set and reveal a contemporary example of relations between masters and apprentices. As expressed by one of the masters, ‘[a] trainee is not an employee and not a volunteer. They would be somewhere between them.’ (personal communication, 2 June 2022), so it is reasonable that they receive fair compensation for their role.

Second, the effort to encourage a two-way relationship in learning and teaching between masters and apprentices is another topic of examination, especially on the part of the masters. While the relationship between the two sides has usually been one-sided, with the role of masters having absolute authority over apprentices, the subsidy regulation aims to put a spotlight on the importance of building a reciprocal dialogue to stimulate new teaching and learning techniques, explore multiple ways of making things and bolster inventive designs to form a kind of learning network. Notwithstanding its challenges, this contemporary vision is shared by the masters, as one clearly expressed: ‘I think in the past the master was the master. [Today] We started to work as equals, even when I know more about the instrument. You can learn more when you are equals and have respect for each other’ (personal communication, 3 June 2022). This also has to do with the fact that learning has become less norm-affirming and more self-critical (Vermeersch and Havermans 2021, 91–92). Besides, this new experience born out of the project’s context seems to help the masters reflect on their teaching skills as craftspeople:

I learn a lot from them. I learn from their questions, insights, suggestions. On a standard workshop as a day course with 10 people, I just focus on 10 people, making sure that everybody knows what they have to know at the end of the day. But only with two trainees in the project, I see them every week and you can go much deeper. It actually makes me a better teacher. I can focus on my teaching and explain things. Every day I have the chance to think about what I did and how I can improve. Most importantly, I learn how to be a good teacher. (personal communication, 2 June 2022)

As observed by one of the masters who participated in the project, the experience gained in some training seems to be relatively more in harmony with the Ministry’s approach:
What we did was ask questions: Why do we do this? Is there any other way of doing it? Try something else […] They ask a lot of questions, and they were very critical about what we were doing. [The] instrument was unknown to them, but they had their own experience with their instruments. They applied their own perspectives. I learned from them too. (personal communication, 3 June 2022)

The words of another master with similar views affirm the reflexive sense among craftspeople: ‘I did not learn anything from him on lettering, but I learned a lot on a personal level. I tried to reformulate everything in my discussions with him and learned about teaching’(personal communication, 6 June 2022). However, the ideal of mutual learning has not always been experienced during the training:
> We felt that time was short. My apprentice was slow in learning. I tried to give him basics in that respect […] Not every apprentice is a super apprentice. They are human beings, so there is a human aspect which I value a lot. Within the limitations, it is important to try to maximise the possibilities and talents. (personal communication, 6 June 2022)

In the light of these views, it seems that ‘expected’ mutual exchanges between masters and apprentices depend on some variables, two of which are ‘apprentices’ background, certain skills and capacities’ required on a higher level by some crafts, on the one hand, and ‘length of training’, on the other, as expressed by one of the masters:

It was not so much mutual. I had hoped for that. Chasing technique [a difficult technique used in jewellery to decorate the front surface of a metal object by indenting] is really difficult. I had to make a lot of efforts to learn key points in chasing. Learning was slow. It has something to do with the length of the training and also the background of trainees […] It was important to select students who already have some experience in metalworking. (personal communication, 5 May 2022)

In addition, Januarius thinks that there are some other problems that turn these partnerships into a challenge over time:
During the first cycle, we saw that working with masters can be exhausting. They have a lot of expectations of students. It is human to have disagreements, problems. But sometimes it gets to the point where masters do not want to work with students or vice versa. That’s something we did not anticipate enough in the two rounds, so in the third round, we asked them to fill in the form saying that they really got to know each other before starting and signing the form (personal communication, 25 January 2022).

It should also be noted that the insistence by the Ministry and NGOs on ‘knowing each other’ beforehand might ‘risk people who want to learn and people who want to teach not finding each other’ as mentioned by one of the apprentices (personal communication, 17 June 2022). Considering these experiences, the project’s overall aspiration to provide a basis for mutual learning and enable masters to learn from their apprentices is a difficult task – even resulting in a dilemma in some cases. Because some masters share the concern that they do not always have many options when it comes to find the right apprentice with needed skill sets and motivation, even when they think they got on with each other well:
The apprentice I finally had, I met him on a course, we got along very well personally […] After a month [in the training], I felt that he was not really putting very much enthusiasm into that. He was not very good; I felt too much frustration. I felt that we were losing time in something secondary. But I thought that it was an important thing for people who funded us, so for me it did not feel okay; I felt like I should do this. For me, it is part of the thing that something happening between two people. Me as a teacher, him as an apprentice. I am not only working with the best students – I try to work with everyone, feel from each student’s possibilities and advantages and try to bring them one or two steps higher. (personal communication, 6 June 2022)

Even though this might not be the kind of mutual exchange envisioned by the Flemish Ministry of Culture, and such cases might not be desirable considering the limited financial resources, these trainings still seem to provide enough space for the masters to discover their role as agents engaging with the current regional policy in crafts and work with apprentices from various backgrounds, not necessarily with the ones with high potential and a relevant background. Apart from these examples, one of the funded trainings that is based on vocal performance can be said to have relatively unusual characteristics with a focus on heritage communities, as it falls outside the boundaries of master–apprentice relations and the one-to-one basis:
In our group, I am not a master. I am not the one teaching the YouYou9. I know it very well. But I also try to work with the fact that this group needs to be collective in order for people to learn YouYou. It is always multiple. It is not one to one; it is a group dynamic, so we tried to stretch modalities of this grant as much as we could and introduce some new terminology. Then I decided to be the coach in dialogue with pupils. We called our grant ‘a collective pedagogic environment’. (personal communication, 9 June 2022)

As can be seen, the vision attached to the project does not limit its scope to crafts and master–apprentice relations. However, the interpretation that brings together masters, apprentices and heritage communities under the same funding mechanism might not be very useful. As stated by Neyrinck, the government still tries to ‘find balance between ‘more budget, less people and less budget, more people.’ Assuming that the inclusion of heritage communities will require more and outlasting financial resources and a different logic in funding allocations compared to a master–apprentice category, it is important to be flexible and not to limit the future design of the project to the duality of budget and people.

Although derived from a new initiative with an experimental basis, the perspective outlined in the last example not only serves to enhance the limited use of LHT systems but also increases the value, function and framework of this system, employing it as a tool of cultural policies. In addition, although being another story outside the primary purpose of this paper, it helps rethink the definition, function and interpretation of the term ‘crafts’ and ‘master–apprentice relationships’ in the context of the Convention and relevant communities in other parts of the world as well. Nonetheless, while the Flemish government tries to avoid possible confusion about the meaning and boundaries of ICH (Department of Culture, Youth & Media 2022, 18), the broad interpretation of crafts incites objections from some of the masters, who tend to attach great importance to the policies that prioritise crafts’ economic relevance and value in the society:

It was surprising to see how many different things were encompassed within this project. You have crafts like mine which is proper crafts; you also have bakery, which is also a craft – I do not deny that. You have projects like Moroccan female singers. Is that a craft or folklore? I do not think it is a craft. For me it is very difficult to judge. They should differentiate or limit the kinds of crafts and define what is crafts and what is folklore. They are different […] It is important to define what is what and what is valuable to society. I do not judge but what kind of value? How is it evaluated? Economical value? These are difficult things. Interpretation of crafts is too broad, which is a problem in my experience. (personal communication, 5 May 2022)

In the light of the participants’ views and the perspective of the programme, LHT systems around the world should be operationalised as tools of education and crafts should be valorised employing a proactive approach not only in the cultural sector but also in education, design, entrepreneurship and economy. In other words, the LHT systems need to be rethought and designed with a focus on transmission of crafts knowledge and skills in the form of trainings based on a mutual exchange between master and apprentice. Although it is not easy, encouraging an equal relationship between two sides would not only help reduce hierarchy implied in such an exchange in LHT systems, but it would also motivate apprentices to learn, blend, contextualise and apply relevant knowledgeand skills, thus increase the relevancy and function of LHT systems. On the other hand, it is equally important that the economic relevancy of existing and future LHT systems be extended with links to entrepreneurship, design and product development through joint efforts of competent ministries, NGOs, universities and the private sector. Closely related to this is the establishment of complementary financial and administrative mechanisms that will (following the completion of training) encourage apprentices to start businesses or develop new initiatives using crafts knowledge, skills and techniques.

The problems faced in the project and the way forward

The success of the experimental subsidy regulation to attract attention among craftspeople in Flanders and the emergence of some problems have proceeded simultaneously. Therefore, the problems encountered in various stages are worthy of investigation. Besides, as the Flemish government seeks for ways to turn it into a sustainable programme in its policy (Department of Culture, Youth & Media 2022, 27), it is essential to address some of the challenges faced through the eyes of the masters who participated in the projects. The main problems with the preparation of application files, the masters’ concern about possible rivalries between masters and apprentices, the lack of a monitoring and assessment mechanism, and the integration of this initiative into formal education need to be highlighted as some of the major points of concern.

The first issue is about the applications submitted to the Ministry, which screen these proposals to make a final decision to select the projects that will receive a subsidy. Despite the administration’s previous attempts to simplify the questions in the forms, some of the masters find it difficult to fill in some parts of the application forms:

The application for the grant was too complicated for technical and administrational possibilities. It was complicated and I felt that it was too formal. Maybe a person-to-person interview would better clarify than all the paperwork putting a programme from day to day, week to week, which is very superficial. That makes no sense. (personal communication, 6 June 2022)
However, the facilitation role of the NGOs across Flanders to help masters and apprentices prepare quality application files seems to work as expected:
I asked for some help from CEMPER [Centre for Music and Performing Arts Heritage in Flanders]. I had somebody there. She said ‘do not say that – it is negative – you better write it like that, then they understand’ etc., so she was a go-between between me and the jury. That was necessary. A craftsperson is a person who works with their hands, not always thinking about how to fill in that form and answer difficult questions. It was a negative experience for me making up the dossier. The paperwork is the most difficult to do. (personal communication, 3 June 2022)

One of the masters suggested a good question to include in the form: ‘what are basics masters would like to pass on to make it possible for the apprentice to develop on their own after the apprenticeship?’ This question would be better for a focused, resource-friendly and fair evaluation of proposals in future cycles, because, he adds, ‘It is not just about gaining skills, making things or building knowledge on know-how. It is also about infusing into that craft. The project can also encourage masters to go in this direction’ (personal communication, 6 June 2022). Having shared the difficulties encountered during this process, apprentices also had ideas, especially stemming from the difference in educational background between masters and apprentices:
Probably the application process is the weakest part of the project. Because the task is heavy. I worry [that there are] a lot of craftspeople who not like to do it in that way. Evaluation might be better on an oral basis, by face-to-face visits […] Being a good craftsperson does not make you a good writer of application files, and it is a different skill. If you have never done it before, it is intimidating. I can imagine a lot of applicants would stop applying because of a big application form, even though I think it is also a comparatively small effort to write a big file if you are getting a lot of chances and money in return, so it is not a bad trade, but it excludes people that have not done academic things. So, I think especially for those people, it is valuable that they can ask for help from NGOs. (personal communication, 17 June 2022)

At this point, it could be good to touch upon the ‘perception’ of NGOs among some of the craftspeople. As indicated by Neyrinck from the NGO Workshop Intangible Heritage Flanders, while the Flemish government provides funding and screens the applications, ‘they [the administration] need to have a kind of neutrality, so that’s where we [the NGO] comes in’ (personal communication, 2 March 2022). In addition, the new ICH policy recently shared by the Flemish government underlines that mediation is best done by the cultural heritage organisations that are ‘close to the heritage communities involved’ (Department of Culture, Youth & Media 2022, 39). However, the view of one of the masters shows that, despite the emphasis above, the role assigned to the NGOs in this initiative is not fully compatible with the intended collaborative strategy, which suggests the need to facilitate a stronger dialogue beforehand between NGOs and masters: ‘For me I see them [NGOs] a little bit closer to the government. They are middle people but they are subsidised. They work closely to politics, so they already bring you closer to governmental logic’ (personal communication, 9 June 2022).

As a relevant issue following the process mentioned above, the evaluation of applications by the Flemish Ministry of Culture seems to raise some concerns about the transparency of final decisions to declare beneficiaries of the subsidy. Although there are limitations due to time constraints, staff shortage and difficulties in arranging juries, the decisions are solely taken by the internal selection committee and the minister. The nature of the selection process raises some questions about the nature of the judgements of the applications, because it impossible to see the extent to which selection criteria have been applied:

How far it is done by administration and how far is the political influence? Whether administrators are already taking into account the preferences of politicians. I guess it is more like that way. They try to present it like a good mixture of applications, diverse. Decisions which politicians will be happy with. Of course, that is all okay, but it would be preferable to make it more transparent so that people know which kind of criteria are used for the selection of grants. (personal communication, 2 March 2022)

Although the subsidy regulation has been customised to better satisfy the needs among craftspeople and it has managed to attract much attention in the region, there is an obvious need to establish a follow-up and assessment mechanism in collaboration with the NGOs during and after the subsidised projects. While noting the extraordinary circumstances during the Covid-19 pandemic and the experimental nature of the action, the lack of monitoring should be addressed as one of the critical points of concern for the consistency, customisation and overall success of this initiative. In addition, since the Ministry provides a subsidy of 30,000 euros for each project, it is important to keep track of how it evolves on the ground, not because of issues of trust, but to increase the efficiency of the subsidies and also strengthen the dialogue between the Ministry, NGOs, masters and apprentices:
The Ministry should have contact with us and know how it is developing. They should see the difficulties themselves. I have a feeling that ‘you are free to do what you want’. You get your money, etc. For me, the final report is more important than what I think doing with it. It is serious. It is very easy to prepare a final report and that’s it. Nobody asks something about results. There is no judgement on the projects, results and effect of trajectories. I expect a proper evaluation from administration. It is possible that they do not spend enough time to judge final reports; it is too quick. I expect the selection committee to speak about the project to raise the quality of trajectories. There is a lot of space for a possible ‘take-it-easy’ situation now. (personal communication, 3 June 2022)

While similar thoughts by other masters also underscore the significance of receiving feedback after the submission of final reports following the end of projects, a remarkable suggestion from one of the masters might be complementary to the views shared above. It might help the Ministry rethink the way the subsidies are delivered in order to increase the productivity of the projects and also serve as an instructive insight for relevant initiatives in other parts of the world, although that would also mean a heavier workload:
What I do not like is that Ministry gives 80 per cent of the money from the start. Some people forget two years later that they got the money. What I say is that it is good to have advance money; we honour your engagement. All money is well spent. In psychology, it is very nice that when people feel ‘ok, I get some money because I will commit’, ‘I get some more money because I am committing’, and ‘I get money afterwards because I have done everything’. That’s the psychology to do timing when you give money: beginning, middle, end. (personal communication, 9 June 2022)

Although most of the problems identified so far naturally occur in different phases of relations between masters and the Ministry, there are interesting issues about the characteristics of some partnerships between masters and apprentices, such as the masters’ anticipation of future rivalry and possible tensions. One of the main goals of the subsidy regulation is to ensure the viability of crafts in Flanders through mutual learning between masters and apprentices. In addition, the plan is to encourage people to pursue a future career as professionals in crafts. In this context, the apprentices are expected to make progress in their domains and use, in the near future, knowledge and skills they learn in their interaction with the masters. However, as reflected by Sophie Muyllaert from the Ministry, some masters look for apprentices who live far away from them to avoid a potential future rivalry. This is especially the case when masters get the impression that the apprentice learns quickly and is able to combine all past and new knowledge and skills easily to create something original, even in a different context. Some of the apprentices are well educated, have their own network and clients, and can make use of social media, whereas some masters have more stable, classical backgrounds with traditional set of skills.

While this is an overall observation based on the Ministry’s experience up till now and cannot hold true for all the beneficiaries, it is an important point of attention that needs to be addressed to ensure better outcomes. Because the subsidy regulation is primarily aimed at crafts communities in Flanders, it is important to deal with such concerns among craftspeople to raise the relevancy of this initiative in the region:

I made it clear to him from the beginning: I do not want you to be an immediate competitor next door, which was obvious. He was living far away. I would not teach the depths of my knowledge to someone next door who will be competing with me next year on the market. It is a general idea I would avoid. (personal communication, 6 June 2022)

On the other hand, one of the masters shared opposing views, paying no mind to the worry about rivalry:
I do not care. Copying would not be a good idea. I always refuse the idea that I educate my future competitors. I am not concerned about that. Anyone can be a baker. We have different bakeries here. People looking at others and complaining about competition and copying have to look at their own work. (personal communication, 2 June 2022)
As shown here, there is no uniform view among craftspeople on the issue of rivalry, and it is not easy to identify to what extent the masters’ concerns about rivalry (implicitly or explicitly) affect their relationships with apprentices and the quality and integrity of the learning process. Nevertheless, this aspect of the subsidy regulation needs to be taken into account in the consideration of applications, as masters seeing it as first steps of a possible rivalry limit the potential of such exchanges, thus meaning waste of limited resources. It should also be noted that possible problems regarding intellectual property rights is another point of concern that seems to be connected to the issue of rivalry. As Januarius from the Center for Industrial Heritage Flanders says, it is sometimes the case that the apprentices who adapt the design of master during training and sell it afterwards without permission give rise to problems that can lead to breakup of their partnership (personal communication, 25 January 2022). While the Ministry tries to avoid such problems by encouraging applicants to prepare and sign a kind of agreement which specifies the responsibilities of both parties, it seems that masters and apprentices deem it unnecessary and rely on mutual trust. However, if the intention is to improve the subsidy regulation in crafts and turn the experiment into a sustainable programme, the creation of a legal framework aimed at these partnerships might be more helpful, as the words of a craftsman reveal: ‘If you have a very good relation between two people, they make it work. Rules and law are there when they do not get along anymore’ (personal communication, 2 June 2022).

As a final remark in this section, formal education aspects of this initiative require specific attention to address possible strategies for a wider and deeper impact. The updated version of the Government of Flanders’ Policy on Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage, which was published in May 2022 refers to Culture Education Days, digital platforms, professional qualifications and adult education as potential points of engagement with ICH(Department of Culture, Youth & Media 2022, 44). As it has been just five years since the apprenticeship initiative started, in addition to more time and inter-ministerial collaboration, public demand is a key factor to integrate the subsidy regulation into formal education. For the time being, the masters’ thoughts can provide a suitable ground to contribute to the way forward in education sector. One of the masters highlighted the need for crafts education in comparison with already existing mechanism in arts education in schools:

We have a system in place for arts. We have high schools with proper workshops, teachers. But all these schools focus on arts. Some of the skills you learn for sculpture is similar to carve wood. We need an equal place for crafts in arts. Some of the arts people devalue crafts. In a way, I can understand that. For arts you need real talent; for crafts you need hard work and a bit of talent. Sustainability of the project in long term is related to formal education. They have to empower crafts in formal education. (personal communication, 2 June 2022)

While it is no easy task to promote craftsmanship in the wider system of formal education and establish a dialogue mechanism between the ministries of culture and education, there should be space for the inclusion of craftspeople at such intersections of arts and crafts, particularly in terms of ‘techniques’, through which a group of craftspeople form a community. If, as suggested by Januarius, a new area of focus can be developed around teaching of smaller techniques as part of the subsidy regulation in the future, integration of craftspeople into arts education in formal settings can be preliminarily feasible to complement the teaching of some art techniques that are closely related to the ones in crafts, as is the case, for instance, between sculpture and woodcarving (personal communication, 25 January 2022). The view by one of the masters that ‘techniques travel, survive and make new articulations’ (personal communication, 9 June 2022) seems to corroborate the significance of the proposed approach. This way, a certain amount of freedom can be enjoyed which helps avoid some disadvantageous characteristics of formal education, such as a fixed curriculum focused on learning objectives to be achieved. Last but not least, the logic of the master–apprentice relationship and school education is different. One master’s perspective in this regard is noteworthy:

Of course, day-to-day things are essential but they are what people see. To give decent grounding to the visible day-to-day things and do it well, you need to go deeper. That’s more study side of things. So, apprenticeship is like working but working without study feels empty to me. (personal communication, 6 June 2022).

Therefore, it might be taken as a call to also think in the long term about the ways to foster apprentices’ further development in higher education institutions (e.g. schools of art or applied sciences) upon the completion of trainings.

To summarise, the problems and experiences introduced in Flanders’ case can help question and transform the logic of LHT systems and help attach contemporary functions that serve to align it with the objectives of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, on the one hand, and the increase its value and relevancy within communities, on the other. In relation to the issues raised in this section, future applications related to LHT systems should follow simple application procedures to attract craftspeople better. It is of equal importance that masters be included in such systems should be required to clarify what basic knowledge and skills they would like to transmit that would enable apprentices to build their own insights and sets of skills. Involvement of competent NGOs as facilitators between government and craftspeople not only in the application process but also in monitoring and follow-up mechanisms could contribute to connecting LHT systems to the Convention (Articles 14 and 15) and engaging with crafts communities efficiently. Most importantly, monitoring and assessment of implementation is crucial for future LHT systems, as it is necessary to see how the programme evolves on the ground and to make sure resources are used efficiently.


The subsidy regulation is a notable attempt in Flanders  where there is currently no official LHT system. The absence of an LHT system in the region seems to enable relevant authorities to experiment in craftsmanship and fine-tune when necessary, which highlights the region’s context-specific characteristics. While the involvement of NGOs as contact points between masters, apprentices and the Ministry of Culture makes it a distinctive initiative, some of the masters (although in the minority) complain that they do not feel the support of the Ministry and NGOs when needed, especially at the start and end of the project. Based on the framework outlined by Cashman and others, then, I argue that the ‘reflecting’ and ‘coaching’ roles(2015, 145) of the NGOs involved might not be functioning. The absence of a monitoring and follow-up mechanism in this experimental initiative led to some complaints, but the tension also has to do with masters’ relatively low tendency to work with NGOs and their level of awareness on the role of NGOs in the subsidy regulation. Some introductory meetings to inform masters better about the various roles of the NGOs might be beneficial for all LHT systems designed under a similar mechanism. Moreover, the inclusion of NGOs in the monitoring and follow-up of LHT systems would enhance their visibility and functions throughout the implementation. It is not enough to speak of bottom-up approaches, and it is equally significant to bring all relevant actors into play and develop awareness and willingness to cooperate ‘within communities’ – that is, between NGOs, masters and apprentices.

In conclusion, the subsidy regulation in Flanders is a noteworthy example that serves to functionalise LHT systems around the world through the adaptation of its logic into regional or national contexts. In this respect, education should be the main transformative motivation to improve LHT systems – not only as part of cultural policies but also as an integral part of economic, industrial and educational tools. Therefore, the scope of LHT should be extended to be a part of inter-sectoral dialogue which would increase the influence of craftsmanship, and thus ICH, in policymaking. An integral aspect of this process is the mobilisation of nonformal education as a complementary experience in the ICH context, where formal education is mostly considered the first option. Positioning crafts and craftsmanship as part of a contemporary apprenticeship model at the intersection of the Convention and LHT systems not only contributes to functionalise the concept of LHT but also enriches the repertoire of ICH education, also helping to turn the attention to community-led safeguarding initiatives.