by • 21 Jul, 2014 • People, Thoughts about museumsComments (5)18530

The convincing transformation process of the Derby Silk Mill

I may have a new favourite museum. It’s a museum that is inherently social, embedded in local communities, smartly run and above all a museum that – if happy faces are a metric – does a lot of good. This museum is the Derby Silk Mill. And despite never having been, it has taught me a lot about the museum of the future. 

At MuseumNext Hannah Fox talked about the transformation process of the Derby Silk Mill. At a great conference, it was by far the most compelling talk. The approach Hannah shared with us was enlightening and transformed the old silk mill into a place that does a lot of good.

Derby Silk Mill is the site of the world’s first factory (Lombe’s Mill, 1721) and has been an industrial museum for the last 40 years. Without major investments it slowly became a museum “full of old exhibition cases (…) and a hotch potch of rooms in varying conditions”. Short of money, they closed their doors in preparation for a redevelopment of the museum that started in October 2013.

The redevelopment started with a critical question with a subtle detail: What does the silk mill represent and mean, not to ‘us’ (employees, stakeholders), but to the city and its citizens?

To answer this question, Hannah joined the team. With a background in live brief projects with communities her first step was to ask the city and its citizens themselves to answer this question. Over a weekend, helped by a pop-up café, more than 800 people shared their ideas, from hosting farmers markets to live music gigs.

Derby Silk Mill blackboard

Next they ran a series of experiments to see what would work and what wouldn’t. Music, debates, maker fairs… The museum opened its doors generously to anybody with a good idea (even if they had doubts about the feasibility of the project) and the events were co-produced with the intended target audience. As Hannah said, a museum may not know how to get teenagers in, but teenagers do!

The experiments resulted in the overarching idea to invite the audience to become producers, not just within exhibitions, but of the museum itself. As such, Re:Make was born, a pilot project to remake the museum and get it back open for the public, with the public. The traditional focus of the museum on STEM was also broadened to STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math.

In 2013 the museum reopened, at first completely empty. The process of thinking and experimenting with the audience continued, even addressing such mundane issues as the necessity of certain doors. The audience helped with everything: decisions about the collection, exhibition and case design, …! This video says more than I can say about it:

So what’s great about this transformation process?

  • One: It is really about people. Starting from the question that started the redevelopment and going on in all projects afterwards, the Derby Silk Mill uses social not as a buzzword, but as a key value in their work. This is social well beyond social media (which by the way they also happen to be very good at).
  • Two: Although the audience is invited to discuss everything, this is not a populist redevelopment project. In fact: the Derby Silk Mill stays surprisingly true to its history and heritage. The site has always been about design, working together and innovation. These values haven’t changed, but the methods to act upon them are now radically different.
  • Three: The Derby Silk Mill reclaimed meaning making, not only as a assumed inherent outcome of their activities, but as the starting point and definition of everything they did.

Judging by the smiling faces on their websites (and despite recent funding news) the Derby Silk Mill seems to do great and they seem to do good. I sincerely hope they can continue to do so for another couple of centuries, or at least decades so I get a chance to visit them for real.

Derby Silk Mill Redevelopment (c)Derby Silk Mill Redevelopment (c)Derby Silk Mill Redevelopment (c) Derby Silk Mill Redevelopment (c) Derby Silk Mill Redevelopment (c)

Quotes from the original transcript of Hannah Fox. Photos copyright Derby Silk Mill, used with permission.

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