The construction of Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings was the result of innovations in ironmaking that took place in and around Shropshire in the 18th century. The building, which came to be known as the “grandfather of modern skyscrapers”, still dominates the skyline today.
Working as I do at Ironbridge Gorge Museums, the impressive repurposing and rejuvenation of the mill, made possible by the courage and forward thinking of Historic England, Shropshire Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is a wonderful addition to the story of industrial development in the region.
The exhibition space, designed by Mather & Co, is entered from the Turned Wood cafe and shop on the ground floor. The exhibition itself is thematic and takes visitors on a journey through a range of topics: Town and Transformation; Engineering and Build; Legacy and Impact; People and Process; Adaption and Change.
The large open spaces, interspersed with the iron columns that made the building possible and significant, have been divided imaginatively, and the lighting adds drama and depth to the space.
The exhibition is punctuated by neon-light headers on many of the panels, which work well and draw attention to the content.
The displays have wide avenues between panels offering good physical accessibility, though the interpretation is – in some places – positioned at a high level. As a result, while the text is set prominently, it may not be that easy to decipher from a lower vantage point.
There is a large amount to read throughout, but it is well paced. Panels are divided with a large-print introduction and further information placed underneath. The text is in blue and black and stands out well against its white background. With a splash of orange evident across the space it looks clean, well presented and colourful.
I felt that more objects and archive material would have added to the overall positive experience. While there are several items related to workers at the Flaxmill, there are relatively few larger pieces of machinery, and where these have survived and are on display it is difficult to understand their function and how they were used. This is not a criticism of the exhibition, more a comment on the difficulty in interpreting a complex story of diverse uses of industrial buildings and the challenge of interpreting static pieces of machinery that are now seen without relationship to the workers and processes they were once a part of.
The mill, as a former industrial building that has gone through a number of uses, is bereft of many of its fittings. Holes in the walls where drive-belts or shafts came through from other parts of the building are a reminder of the operations, noises and smells that must have filled the mill during its history. The exhibition has an effective cut-through elevation of the building on which is overlaid a silhouette of machinery and lifts in action. This is cleverly done and it ties the building together by showing how the activity of each floor was interrelated.
Characters and quotes are featured throughout the spaces; from William Hazeldine the ironmaster, who produced the frame for the building; to the voices of the mill workers; or the soldiers who were housed and trained in the building during the second world war.
Although this is not a new interpretation technique, here it gives a real sense of the many people whose lives are intertwined with the long history and fabric of the mill. The quotes provide a human side to the building and its past, illustrating how its function and relationship with the local community has changed and developed over the centuries.
A rich seam
Areas of contention have been subtly woven into the story. For example, there are questions that explore workers’ rights and exploitation, and others that consider the environmental impact of the textile industry.
It is evident that the designers have considered the needs and learning styles of visitors. There are several interactives in the space ranging from those that are computerised to the more simple, such as rotating a circular shape that reveals, in turn, a question and answer.
In general, the interactives work well with the thematic approach, although I felt the activity requiring visitors to place a bobbin on the table in a coloured circle to reveal how people used flax in the past was a little forced. The empty bobbin has little context and the activity does not reveal any association with its use other than a fact about flax.
The gallery has friendly and knowledgeable volunteer guides and I am sure they help families and younger visitors to better understand and appreciate the exhibition.
Altogether, the Flaxmill Maltings is a success, with a considerable number of themes explored. While this may prove too much for younger visitors to take in on one visit, repeat visits will be encouraged by the breadth of information on offer, the engaging interactives, and the well-placed shop and cafe.
Nick Ralls is chief executive officer at Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust