In Amsterdam last week, we found the NEMO Science Museum. It was designed to mirror the road tunnelled beneath it going below ground but its dramatic Verdigris structure looks more like the stern of a sinking ship sticking out of the water. It is a fabulous place, aimed at children of all ages, but still inspiring for adults. It teaches about the body, the mind and all the sciences in a hands-on inspirational way. The practical “talks” on chain reactions covering potential and kinetic energy enthralled a full house of all ages at every sitting.

A sign in the museum was used to explain some laboratory equipment from the late 18th and 19th centuries when scientific experiments were used as a form of entertainment with the practical aspect that they “expanded scientific knowledge”. The museum notes that it still uses amusing tests in the same way.

In the UK, Sir Humphry Davy was one of the best known for his over-subscribed public lectures while he is also recognised for isolating sodium, barium, calcium, magnesium, strontium, boron, chlorine and leading the invention of the miners’ safety lamp.

He joined the famous Royal Institute in London in 1801 two years after it had been founded and, at the end of that year, gave a series of lectures on leather, having taken three months to update his knowledge of the industry in a tannery in Nether Stowey in Somerset, England. His work with leather lead to a measure for tannin content and he won prizes for his papers.

Even more profound looking back, as NEMO reminds us, is that public engagement can have huge value and when involving experiential learning as Davy did with laughing gas (nitrous oxide) really creates strong understanding.  

The links that combine the great Sir Humphry Davy with leather, creativity and an ability to communicate with all ages are even more relevant today. There appears to be no inbuilt mechanism in humanity against animal agriculture or the making of leather, in fact, the reverse. Yet we still find teenagers preaching against leather and careers masters talking of leather as a sunset industry.

The basic goodwill is worthy of building upon before these youngsters meet the formidable machinery of misguided or malevolent animal rights campaigners.

Over the last two decades, the leather industry has struggled to own and manage its own narrative. The expectation seemed to be that one magic statement from a leading leather body could change the world overnight.

Recent years have been fraught as the industry struggled to cooperate enough to find a narrative that all could support, with the first aim of getting it to the brands, the designers and then the young consumers who are rapidly replacing aging boomers. But we appear to have a consensus now.

The Leather Naturally website now has a vast array of carefully written documents that provide the scientific basis for this narrative and will allow it to develop as we further understand and address the issues of biodiversity, climate and poverty the world faces. These are freely available and are being used and adapted all around the world and supported by other organisations and companies to address specific audiences. What is new is that, in the main, they all work around the same truths and tell roughly the same story. The value of cooperation already shows in what we are seeing in the press, as claims for synthetics are now regularly challenged by journalists.

One target group that has been largely ignored in all this are children. For some years, we have been aware of courses for children to work with leather in Japan and now we are learning of others in the U.S., Australia and Europe, although they are not common. One person, Muhammad Junaid Vohra, the Creative Head of Essential Elements, who has been thinking about this for some years in Pakistan, took his ideas and project work to the recent APLF show in Dubai.

He has created “a specially designed DIY box for children with an aim to make real leather a playful material. With animal mascots illustrations, who talk about real sustainability, the kit lets children discover the world with an eye for leather and unleashes their creative ability to create”.

This is where cooperation and the commercial can meet uncomfortably. We know that, through the pandemic, many people around the world have turned to making leather goods while isolated at home, and that online and real courses are doing well. Even before the pandemic, we saw workshops at ACLE Shanghai where start-up companies were already overcrowded.

Equally, bodies like Leather Naturally are voluntary and to widen their activity the leather industry must stop leaving it to a small number of companies to do everything. A small membership fee from everyone would be transformative. While Leather Naturally does produce and share “theoretical knowledge” – I would prefer saying “honest science-based facts” – these have been translated into the work of Metcha, been the basis for presentations, cartoons and videos around the world, and created the underpinning for the Leather Manifesto prepared by 30 plus organisation before COP26.

Getting knowledge and enthusiasm for leather to younger generations is an important target whether it be at the level of career consideration or infants working with pieces and understanding their origins and fun to use. We need many creative and entrepreneurial minds like Junaid Vohra working in these vital areas and even greater support for and cooperation among our top organisations to find ways to support and encourage these activities. It is truly time to expand the reach of the wonderful narrative of leather.

Mike Redwood

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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