The Mingei approach: we collect, connect and open up


The history of craft goes back almost to the history of man: sharpening stone, carving wood, weaving fabric were amongst the first things human beings had to master to make their way up to our days. Most of the objects that we use in our life today are still the results of highly-skilled craftsmanship. Even those objects that are made with the help of sophisticated machines, would not be possible without the masterful skills of people who designed the machines and their usage in the process.

Preserving crafts, even those that are no longer in use today, is paramount to preserve our history and the many wonderful techniques that we have invented to tame matter and make the world a pleasant and comfortable place to live in. Preserving and representing crafts is the mission of Mingei. One of the major challenges that the Mingei project is facing, is to use computer-based technologies to represent an exquisitely, intrinsically human activity. How do we digitize something that is so intangible and dynamic?

Representing crafts using state-of-the-art technology

To achieve this ambitious goal, we use a three-step approach at Mingei: we collect, we connect and we open up. In each step, we put Information Technology at the service of the step’s goals, employing a wide range of techniques to maximize the quality of the result.

We collect

Humans are the primary sources of the knowledge about craft that Mingei collects. We talk with craftsmen and craftswomen to hear their stories. What needs to be done in the craft they master, and when, and where, and how? People knowledgeable about the crafts are our primary source of knowledge. We run co-creation sessions with them, in which we all interact to obtain from them all they know about the craft they master. And we record what the people we work with say, using digital audio-visual tools and techniques to obtain the most from our interaction with them. But we also track their movements, placing sensors on key parts of their bodies. This way we are able to document the most minute details of their actions during crafting, both verbally and physically.

The secondary sources of knowledge that we look at are books, articles, images, movies, web sites and so on, that report knowledge relevant to Mingei. Our humanist scholars, including anthropologists, historians and sociologists, all with an expertise in craft, study and research to learn what are the most relevant of those sources. They then explore them, to extract the relevant stories and notions which they then encode in digital form. All this knowledge, gathered from primary and secondary sources in digital form is imported into the Mingei knowledge base, which is the digital repository where the project stores the knowledge that it needs to preserve crafts.

During the knowledge collection phase, the pilots first provided pre-existing digital content, such as photographic documentation of museum exhibits, video documentaries and curated literature. Next, we created new digitisations by photographic documentation of each pilot sites, including the museums, machines, pre-existing photographs, catalogues, workshops, etc. All kinds of objects, such as weaving looms, garments, mastic trees, mastic villages, tools, traditional clothing, and glass instruments were digitized with 3D reconstruction technology. With use of motion capture technology, we recorded the meticulous and skilled movements of crafts practitioners. This collection of knowledge on the three pilot crafts of Mingei is supplemented with the knowledge from open repositories and online resources.

The video above is an example of 3D reconstruction. Here we see a handheld machine that is used for the cultivation of mastic on Chios. The image at the top of this article shows another 3D reconstruction, featuring a woman during the process of cleaning mastic on Chios.

We connect

The knowledge collected in the first step is formed by many elements of diverse nature, each addressing some particular aspect of some particular craft. Precious as it is, this knowledge does form yet a set of stories that can be used to document crafts: the elements it consists of need to be connected into coherent wholes that convey meaningful messages to the Mingei user audience. Performing this connection is the objective of the second step. This step uses semantic information as a medium and narratives as the tool to connect the knowledge elements. That is, we use stories as coherent wholes that convey the knowledge about crafts, and in particular stories shaped as semantic networks, to make them as readable and as easy to understand as possible using today’s information technology.  Examples are stories about the Jacquard’s loom, the Krefeld textile industry, the history of Bontemps’ life, the construction of Crystal Palace, the narrative of Isidore of Chios, the story of mastic chewing gum, and many more.

Every story created by Mingei is a rich network, consisting of two basic elements: the schema of the craft, and a set of executions of the schema. The schema is a description of the activities needed to make that craft, and of the order in which these activities must be done, that is, which activities need to be done before, or after, or in parallel to which activity. Like a blueprint or a manual of a craft.

An execution of the schema represents an actual performance of the craft, as a set of real actions carried out by some craft master in a certain place and at a certain time, in the order prescribed by the schema. Both schema and executions are represented as semantic networks, that is set of RDF (Resource Description Framework) triples. Some of these triples link activities and events to the knowledge elements that document them. These networks are then lent to the third step of the Mingei approach.

We open up

The RDF triples produced in the second step encode knowledge in a way that is known only to the people which created them. To communicate this knowledge to the different types of users Mingei addresses, a non-negligible effort is required. This effort is done in the third step of the Mingei approach. Here again, we resort to co-creation: we run sessions with museum experts to design apps that will allow users to discover, access, understand and enjoy the knowledge about crafts we have mustered. This is the way Mingei opens knowledge about crafts to the outside world. At the moment, we are co-designing immersive digital experiences, such as an app that enables the virtual creation of patterns and textiles, a digital city exploration of Krefeld, a mastic cultivation training app, and a digital glass experience.

At the same time, we make sure our semantic networks will be safely preserved for long-term access in the future by applying digital preservation techniques to them. In essence, we add further knowledge to our network and we archive them in special archives, so that they will be accessible and usable for a long time after the Mingei project is over.

This video shows an example of the digital experiences that Mingei is currently developing. The game is set up in the past, in the physical landscape of Chios created through satellite depth maps and exploits the aerial 3D scans of Chios villages created by Mingei.


In order to maximize its performance, Mingei is running the three steps in parallel, with the beginning of the steps scaled in time, so that each step is able to receive its input from the previous one. At present, Mingei has completed the first two steps on all three pilots, and has begun the third one. The first finalized digital experience will be launched soon, so stay tuned to hear the news!

Written by Carlo Meghini (CNR)