Over three centuries, it has been ravaged by fire and the wrecking ball. But now the world’s first factory will rise again from the ashes of its former self, repurposed as a new cathedral for the maker movement.
Amid huge interest in creating and refashioning things, Derby’s Museum of Making, which opens this spring, is launching at an auspicious time.
“Look at how popular TV programmes like The Repair Shop are,” said Tony Butler, executive director of Derby Museums. “Making resonates with the public.”
The maker movement is a subculture that embraces and celebrates the physical act of creating something. Borrowing from traditional hobbies such as woodworking, textile design and metalwork, there is a strong emphasis on repurposing existing objects and finding fun and fulfilment in the act of creation.
Couple the huge interest in making with the UK’s desire to understand its new post-Brexit role in the world while grappling with its colonial past and the climate crisis, and it may transpire that the museum is the attraction the country did not know it needed right now.
“We are really keen on putting forward the idea that every young person can be a maker,” Butler said. “The challenges that we face in the 21st century, things like climate change and environmental loss, much of that will be mitigated by technology, engineering and ingenuity, and those are the kind of makers we need in the future.”
The museum is located in Derby city centre on the site of a silk mill that opened in 1721 and whose claim to being the world’s first factory lies in the fact that it was the first fully mechanised mill supplied by a single power source.
With £18m funding from the national lottery, local development agencies and the Arts Council, there are hopes that the museum, located in the Derwent Valley Mills Unesco World Heritage Site, will show how people can be attracted back into city centres in a post-Covid world.
Those behind the museum say there has been extensive consultation among the local community, with their feedback helping shaping its design. Volunteers even cleaned 11,000 bricks from the original factory to be repurposed in the new building.
“The site has changed since the first factory burned down,” explained Hannah Fox, director of projects and programmes at the museum. “Bits of it have fallen down and there have been major disasters over 300 years of its life, but every single time something happened it was rebuilt by the city because it was so important.”
The new building, designed by Bauman Lyon Architects, retains the original factory’s Italianate tower, its arches and Grade I-listed gates but, in Fox’s words it will be “a kind of mash-up of lots of different periods”.
“We are redefining it for what it needs to be at this time, and that is a place that really tells a story and inspires people to see themselves as makers,” Fox said.
Butler explained that an “entire culture” had emerged out of the worldwide maker movement. “It’s not just lads with beards in their sheds in Shoreditch tinkering with old bikes. That whole culture of making resonates with someone, whether they’re in San Francisco or London or Derby.”
He said the new museum would explore the links between the factory in its first incarnation and the Derby of today, home to the likes of Rolls-Royce and Toyota. But it would also confront the relationship between the industrial revolution and today’s problems, such as the devastating legacy of fossil fuels and the textile industry’s reliance on slavery.
“The general, pervasive view of the industrial revolution in Britain is very much that of the ‘great man’ narrative,” Butler said. “There’s this idea that the industrial revolution was down to unique British exceptionalism. We want to acknowledge that innovation can be driven by individual revelation and genius, but the revolution also did rely, in the factory system’s case, on a ready supply of workers and raw resources.”
Almost all of the museum’s 30,000 artefacts will be on display. “Most museums have the majority of their collections in store but this museum will have pretty much everything accessible to the public,” Fox said. “They range from a huge engine donated by Rolls-Royce to a fantastic little engine run by a single human hair that was showcased at the Chicago World’s Fair in the 1930s.”
The museum will also return to the manufacturing roots of the original factory by making things – including exhibition displays that will be built on site and sold to other museums. “It will be a full workshop space for new businesses to prototype and manufacture things they want to take to market,” Fox said. “It’s a place of making in every sense.”
A previous museum on the site closed in the mid 2000s. “Visitor numbers were dwindling,” Butler explained. “It was to do with the way in which the narrative was framed as something that was inherently in the past. It meant fewer and fewer people were coming to visit the museum. It was seen as almost a paean or a longing for a lost industrial age. What we are trying to do with this museum is make it contemporary and relevant to the sorts of work in which people are engaged today.”