• Learn more about the museums shortlisted for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2022 here
The imposing red brick building, Derby Silk Mill, which houses the museum of manufacture is itself a key piece of history. It stands on the site of a silk mill built in 1721 by brothers John and Thomas Lombe. Powered by water from the River Derwent, it once produced yarn on an unprecedented scale. Operating 50 years before Richard Arkwright set up his famous cotton mill upriver at Cromford, it is considered the world’s first fully mechanized factory.
Three hundred years after the birth of the mill, the current 1910 building was brought back to life in May 2021 as the Museum of Making, one of three sites managed by Derby Museums. A decade-long £18million redevelopment has resulted in ‘complete transformation’, says Tony Butler, the trust’s chief executive. The mill previously housed the Derby Industrial Museum from 1974 until 2011 when the town council mothballed it. Visitor numbers had dwindled and the exhibits were outdated, says Butler, rooted in “the story of a ‘great man’ of industry” and a narrative of “unique British genius”.
The stars of the museum today are its eclectic objects, united by their Derby and Derbyshire origins. Exhibits include a miniature engine running on a single human hair, the classic cast-iron red mailbox, the locally made Tomb Raider video game, and a beloved model railroad (turned on twice a day in its own room dedicated). The galleries exude pride in the region’s manufacturing prowess, but are unafraid of the dark side of the industrial boom. The wall texts refer to the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels, the British Empire’s reliance on slave labor and the “intolerable conditions” faced by factory workers, including including children as young as eight years old.
True to its name, probably the biggest innovation is how the Museum of Making has empowered the public to do and do. Unlike the “static and didactic” museum of yesteryear, “learning and activity are built into the DNA of this space,” says Butler. The belly of the building houses learning studios and a workshop where paying members can access a kiln, kiln, woodworking benches, and laser cutters, among other tools. The idea of ”bringing manufacturing back to the site of the world’s first factory” was the driving force behind the redevelopment, Butler says.
Local artisans and residents have contributed to the design of the museum since its inception in 2011. When the public was first invited to suggest ideas for the future of silk spinning, “it became clear that People were strongly attached to the city’s manufacturing heritage, but they wanted it to be relevant to their lives today,” says Butler. Even before major funding was secured from the National Heritage Lottery Fund, community groups participated in prototyping sessions with the architects of the redevelopment, Bauman Lyons. “We would have events where people were shuffling potential designs for galleries using cardboard boxes and string.”
By popular demand, objects are organized by material rather than chronology in the Assemblage, a large open storage space housing the bulk of the collections. Visitors are free to roam without curatorial direction beyond the basic signs reading ‘wood’, ‘metal’ or ‘textiles’. The groaning shelves look like an antique shop or warehouse, displaying many items outside of the usual Perspex display cases. There were some grumbles from traditionalists, Butler admits, but most visitors “like the idea of uncovering themselves and being able to poke around.”
Some of the skeptics were later converted into museum volunteers, he adds, joining the “phalanx of people” who helped in the years leading up to the opening, moving collections into storage and even making cases for made-to-measure objects using the facilities of the workshop.
It is this practical civic spirit that Butler hopes will convince the Art Fund judges to award the prize to the Museum of Making. “I think we’ve shown that you can create a museum from scratch,” he says. “And that by adopting a human-centered approach, we are able to build a community around the pleasure of doing.”
How does the museum plan to spend the £100,000 prize if it wins? Most likely, this would mean a boost for its interdisciplinary learning program, the Institute of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths), sponsored by Rolls-Royce. Connecting the dots between Derby’s industrious past and its high-tech future, the scheme aims to inspire budding techies and creative entrepreneurs at “every school in the city”, says Butler.
To see: Advertising poster of Fred Taylor (circa 1910)
“Obviously the massive seven-tonne Rolls-Royce Trent jet engine is the legendary item in the museum’s Civic Hall, but I also love this Midland Railway poster in the Railways Revealed gallery depicting St Pancras circa 1910 (inset, below).In the artwork is the canopy of St Pancras, which was made in Derby.The iron roof framework was made by the foundry of Andrew Handyside in the town most of the locomotives and rolling stock would have been made at the Midland Railway Locomotive Works in Derby and many people would probably have been [travelling] from Derby too. So the image is of an iconic London station, but it was all done in Derby.
Tony Butler, Executive Director of Derby Museums