A HUNT FOR RELEVANCE
In 2011, the historic jet engines in the Derby Silk Mill went silent. The industrial museum, on the site of one of the first factories in the world, closed its doors.
The museum had started its life as Lombe’s Mill, the first fully-mechanized factory in Northern England. Millworkers twisted silk into thread there for almost 200 years. In 1974, the site became Derby’s Industrial Museum. For decades, it thrived. Visitors flocked to its collection of Rolls-Royce jet engines and artifacts reflecting the city’s textile, railway and brick-making industries.
But over time, the site became a museum piece itself. Exhibitions grew stagnant and visitor numbers declined. In 2008, the Heritage Lottery Fund—the largest cultural funder in the UK—denied a large grant request. The museum faced an uncertain future. In 2011, Derby City Council, which owned the building, closed the doors and mothballed the collection.
But it wasn’t closed for good. The Derby Museums Trust hired a new project manager, Hannah Fox, to reinvent what would be called the Silk Mill Museum. Hannah was given the mandate to reopen the museum again—or at least the ground floor. Implicit in this mandate was the sense that the museum had to be reinvented to be more relevant to the community.
Hannah was a museum outsider and Derby local. She knew the museum had fabulous artifacts. She’d grown up seeing those artifacts. But she didn’t see those artifacts’ connection to the community. The objects seemed separate from the life of the city. The museum felt exclusive and niche.
Hannah didn’t just want to make the building relevant. She wanted it to be loved—and loved for the objects, stories, and history built into the walls themselves. Of course, many of the museum staff and volunteers wanted this too. But they lacked the direction on how to make the museum sing.
Instead of answering this question herself, Hannah invited community members to help via a user-centered design approach. She put aside any preconceptions of what the museum should be—including her own. There were years of reports saying it should be a museum of fashion, a museum of science and engineering, an international destination. But those were consultants telling Derby what it should be. Hannah wanted to know: what do the people of Derby want it to be?
Hannah and her team went on a hunt for relevance. They started hosting playful, public brainstorming workshops to ask locals what they really wanted to see and do. The responses were ambitious and varied. They included a cafe, a space for engineering events, science, creative activities, a concept called “Silk Mill Modern” – even for it to be used as a live music and festival venue. But across the varied perspectives, one through-line stood out: the idea of Derby as a city of makers. The city gave the world Rolls-Royce, the Inter-City 125 High Speed Train, and the Tomb Raider computer games. One of the world’s first factories was just the start of the story—and the right place to tell it.
Hannah tested this premise with a series of “open make” events and a mini-maker faire, co-produced with some of the locals who had participated in early brainstorming. The events were successful. They emboldened Hannah and her team to go further. They decided: we are going to remake this museum with our community. Together, we are going to make this historic factory into a place of making once more.
They turned the ground floor into a workshop, and the museum took off from there. Hundreds of volunteers showed up each week to design, prototype, and build a new experience. They designed their own personal creative projects, and they helped rebuild the museum too. They built exhibit walls. Artifact cases. Even museum furniture. Making was the key for people to connect to the museum anew. The museum became a beloved home for makers of all stripes. Many of the museum’s most enthusiastic participants were senior engineers whose career advancement had taken them away from the workbench and into desks. They felt divorced from the making that pulled them into their careers in the first place. They felt lost, tinkering in their garages, uncertain where to connect with the thing that they loved. The museum became that place.
The Silk Mill became a thriving, relevant museum not by abandoning its core values, but by reaffirming them. Just four years after this rebirth, the Silk Mill is thriving as a museum that celebrates makers past, present, and future. User-centered design methods are spreading across the organization. The museum is now embarking on a twenty-five million dollar redevelopment—funded by the same Heritage Lottery Fund that rejected its request in 2008.
The institution lost relevance when it got caught up in the stuff of the collection and the trappings of the institution. By reaching out to the community of makers in Derby, the staff learned how the museum might be valuable in a new way. Community participants helped build radical new doors into the institution, doors that reframed and reclaimed essential parts of the Silk Mill’s heritage. When the museum rediscovered the makers at its heart, it found its way.