The UK is dotted with former industrial sites that have been put to new use as heritage attractions. The challenge with these venues is to make them relevant and interesting to today’s audiences rather than just a nostalgic glimpse into a long-forgotten past.
Step up Derby Silk Mill – widely regarded as the site of the world’s first modern factory – which has been reborn as the Museum of Making. The venue, a Grade II-listed building, sits on a site of global significance in the Derwent Valley Mills Unesco World Heritage Site, where the mill first stood 300 years ago. The area along the river Derwent is seen as the birthplace of the modern factory system, helping to kickstart the industrial revolution and a long tradition of innovation, design and manufacturing in Derby.
Many in the museum sector have been keenly waiting to see how this redevelopment, spearheaded by Derby Museums executive director Tony Butler and project lead Hannah Fox, has turned out. The project is of interest for a number of reasons, including the way it has been delivered using new procurement and construction concepts being trialled by the government known as the Integrated Project Insurance model. Derby Museums is only the second organisation in the UK to use this construction approach. Funders for the scheme include the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Arts Council England and Derby City Council.
The project has also been developed through co-production and human-centred design. This involved Derby residents helping to create the museum’s displays via workshops, events and other activities. This approach provides a sense of community ownership and also makes sure that object choices and interpretation are relevant to local people. And using the creativity of today’s residents forged a strong link to the historical creativity that was so important to the city’s industrial development.
Work in progress
Derby Museums wanted to build on this creative legacy by providing facilities that support modern-day makers. Central to this is the Workshop, which includes lathes, laser cutters, welding equipment and a range of tools, benches and other machinery. A membership fee gives access to these facilities and there is also a co-working area where makers can book desk space.
On arrival at the museum, people encounter the renovated Grade I-listed Bakewell Gates, which have stood at the front of Derby Silk Mill since 1725. Visitors enter the building itself via the triple-height glass atrium that forms the museum entrance and features objects that introduce the collection and the stories that will be told in the rest of the displays.
Objects are grouped by the materials from which they are made – wood, metal, glass and so on. An introductory panel proudly states: “We made this museum with the people of Derby.”
The displays have been designed in a way that looks like it will be easy to change the objects on show. As is common in museum interpretation today, visitors are asked questions in the graphic panels, such as “Are there materials that inspire you?” and “What will you make today?”
As well as the smaller artefacts that feature in the displays, the exhibition designers have gone for a large show-stopper object – a seven-tonne Rolls-Royce Trent 1,000 engine that is suspended from the ceiling.
Visitors can choose to stay in the entrance hall and sit in the cafe or move upstairs to the displays. The ground floor also features spaces for events and activities.
Making the grade
The Throwing Room displays on the first floor reflect the layout of the original mill machines and explore the themes of making in Derby and the surrounding areas. Here, you can see evidence of the involvement of local people and the commitment to human-centred design. The display cases, in particular, have a different look to most museums, and feel more hand-crafted and tailor-made. There is a good range of objects on display, including large and small artefacts, photography and artworks.
Also on the first floor is a gallery introducing visitors to the history of the Silk Mill and the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage site. On the same level is a more recent industrial story in the Flight Deck, a small display about technology giant Rolls-Royce, one of the museum’s supporters.
On the second floor is the Assemblage, which provides a nice change of pace from the displays on the floor below. Here, the 30,000 objects in the collections are shown as a kind of open museum store. Again, artefacts are arranged by their principal material.
Another key area is Railways Revealed, which looks at Derby’s impact on the world through the railways. It is home to the Study Centre, where visitors can explore the archives of the Midland Railway Society. The gallery also features a huge model railway that was first displayed at Derby Museums in 1951.
Overall, the Museum of Making offers a range of engaging displays that succeed in bringing to life the remarkable industrial history of Derby and the visitor experience is enhanced by helpful and knowledgeable staff. Supporting today’s makers should help to create a museum that builds on the area’s heritage and makes it relevant to the lives of people today. And having makers working and creating on site will help to animate the spaces with a lively feel that should encourage visitors to return.