Go to Derby: see how a museum can help shape a better future

·5 min read

What is the role of museums in civic life? Are they merely containers of memory or can they be agents for change? When I visited the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent recently – the museum I grew up with, even worked at during the holidays – I ended up with a feeling of profound melancholy, despite my usual pleasure in the richness of its ceramics collection. I could hear fellow visitors, who were locals (though the museum was sadly almost empty) sharing memories of a pottery industry that had contracted greatly in the late 20th century; I chatted to a man whose mother had once been a highly skilled tube-liner at a well-known potbank (tube-lining is a decoration technique). Of course, understanding and thinking about the past has always been the primary role of museums. But – perhaps especially in the case of industrial museums in deindustrialising areas – there is a danger of nostalgia. Of lamentation, even.

About 40 miles east of Stoke, Derby’s Museum of Making is pioneering a different approach. The museum is housed in a former water-powered silk mill, originally built in 1721, that has some claim to be the first modern factory in the world. Shortlisted for the Art Fund Museum of the Year award, which is awarded on 14 July, the institution was until recently a standard-issue industrial history museum. But since it reopened last May after a redevelopment, it has been doing something rather different, and the clue is in the purposeful title. The museum certainly contains relics of a lost manufacturing history. There’s no more silk-making, after all; and formerly major firms, such as the foundry Handyside, which manufactured everything from pillar boxes to railway bridges, are gone. But it is also about the industrial present.

When you walk into the museum, the first two things you see are a magnificent Trent 1000 Rolls-Royce engine suspended from the ceiling of the glassed-in hallway; and, above your head, the components of a Toyota Corolla. Both firms are major employers in the city (Rolls-Royce employees, Derby Museums’ executive director Tony Butler told me, like to have their wedding photos done by the engine). Between the two modern objects, running up a stairway, is a selection of things once or still made in the city, from bus-stop signs to Crown Derby china.

Continue through the museum and you’ll get an understanding of the history of manufacturing of this city. Crucially, no bones are made about the exploitation of labour at home and in the empire: there’s no British exceptionalism, no unique British “genius” rolled out to explain the industrial revolution. Aside from being truthful, that hardheadedness also goes a long way towards eradicating wistfulness about a lost greatness.

The museum, instead, is practical. The exhibits – a policy guided by early public consultation – are largely organised by material (wood, ceramic, metal). It’s a maker’s way of looking at the world. And everywhere you go, you are confronted by people actually doing things, whether it’s staff doing a bit of crafting while looking after the tills, or a volunteer helping visitors have a go on a hand loom.

There is a maker-in-residence scheme, currently held by a recent graduate in product design, Joel Aspinall, who is working on 3D-printed ceramics and bespoke jewellery – using a studio space free of charge, and being supported by the museum more generally (when we chat, he is just about to meet up with the in-house marketing team). Those who join a membership scheme can access co-working spaces and rent time in workshops, too.

Here makers – whether recent graduates who need some bench space, professional artisans or retired hobbyists – can go to use seriously good equipment (a kiln, a CNC lathe), and talk through projects with technicians. Butler told me they were explicitly hoping to be a resource and practical inspiration for young people who might not want to go to university, but who could end up with skilled jobs in local industries.

How has it done all this? Crucially, Derby’s museums were spun out of direct control of the council and are run by a trust, which gives them freedom, including the ability to raise their own endowment. (Many council-run institutions have limited autonomy, their directors buried deep within a municipal hierarchy.) However, and in large part owing to Westminster’s outsourcing of austerity to local councils in the years after 2010, Derby’s museums receive only about 50% of their funding from public sources. The rest they raise and earn themselves, so that the Museum of Making is a catering business and an event space too – a modern neoliberal model that, pushed too far, risks deflecting the institution from its civic responsibilities. The museum, free of charge to enter, is clearly thriving – it was buzzing with life on a Tuesday lunchtime – but Covid’s parting gift has been a deficit that must be eradicated by 2026. Not easy.

Derby, like so many towns and cities in the UK, has watched Covid hollow it out, leaving high-street retail units empty that may never be refilled as shopping moves rapidly online. What might a new kind of city centre look like, now that retail-led regeneration is effectively over? Could there be more housing, more units for small-scale businesses and manufacturers, more and better cultural spaces? If museums are one of the most important ways in which the identity of a city is explored, the Museum of Making is certainly staking a claim to Derby’s future – not just its past.

  • Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief culture writer