Goal of the project:

Co-produce a new museum of making for Derby Silk Mill

  • Uncover new stories and narratives
  • Find and engage new audiences
  • Discovering new meanings for ‘making’

Derby Museums has defined its project aim for the development of the Silk Mill as:
“How might ‘make the museum of making’ at Derby Silk Mill, site of the world’s first factory – encourage and enable shared ownership and participation to help lead and influence the on going story of Derby and its citizens?”

Description of project:

The Silk Mill in Derby is the site of the world’s first factory (and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Derby has had a rich industrial past and the former industrial museum, which had been located in the mill for nearly 40 years, was intended as a reflection of this history. In five years time the entire building will be re-imagined, re-designed and re-opened as Derby Silk Mill - Museum of Making. The new museum will have Derby’s communities at its heart and be co-produced with the people of Derby, creating strong narratives, connections and greater relevance and resilience as a result. The themes of the project and museum will be ‘Inspired by the Makers of the past, Made by the Makers of today, Empowering the Makers of the future’.


The team of the Derby Silk Mill started the regeneration project with a question about relevance, wondering what the mill means to the people of Derby and using co-production and human-centred design approaches to find out. They started asking anyone and everyone what they would do with the space in the mill in a ‘Project Lab’. There was room for any type of activity, from maker faires and exhibitions, to music events and international learning programmes.


Throughout this process the museum team felt strongly that community members should be involved as citizen-curators and makers in the complete process of developing the building into a new and modern museum. Hannah Fox, project director, writes: “This process was very different to traditional museum practice: for example, our curators’ professional knowledge of an object was only one part of the story, because the public’s own perception of their local history, their own interests and their emotions regarding the items were hugely relevant too.”

Community members of all ages and backgrounds were invited to conceptualize their ideas, design them and eventually build the exhibits and displays themselves. To structure the process of the rebuild, at the beginning of each activity or project the museum team defines a vision statement for the activity, formulated as a ‘How might we’ question. Through brainstorming at the start the team also considers how they can engage the head, heart and hands – encouraging participants to ‘think, feel and do’ throughout the process.

A recent example of this participatory approach can be seen in the Ceramics Gallery project. The Ceramics Gallery is an exhibit that urgently needed an update. Together with community members and design students the museum is quickly prototyping the interventions and putting them on display, using the ‘Project Lab’ approach developed in the Re:Make project and sharing progress on Twitter using #DMceramics. The prototypes are developed according to the head, heart and hands principles, questioning what people feel when they look at the way the objects are currently displayed or when they themselves use similar modern-day cups etc., and then how they would like to feel when experiencing the final exhibition. From the audiences responses, curators and others involved learn a lot about how their concepts and designs are actually being perceived and understood, reflecting on whether this is true to the vision statement.


What have they learned?

Working in this type of project requires a new type of leadership and project management, says Hannah Fox. The community contributors to the project are invaluable, but cannot be held responsible for the end result of their work, in the sense that are large sums of funding depending on the end results. For participants you have to create a safe and welcoming space for them to work in – valuing contributions and ideas but being clear about what can be developed further against the project aims.

Collaboration and honesty are of key importance while working in a co-creative setting to ensure high quality work. Shared ownership of the vision statement and the work produced, allows for open discussion and self reflection towards the results of the work. Through collaboration and honesty, personal disappointment can be avoided and the highest quality standards can be upheld.

Other key experiences that will lead to improvements in the next phase of the project are:
Communication: Continuously following up with personal contacts and on other communication channels is important to share the complete story of the transformation.
Volunteers: A new co-production volunteer coordinator will be assigned to focus on the relationships with volunteers (although this does not relieve the other team members of this responsibility as well).
Time: In co-creative projects everything takes longer than you’d think. It is the teams joint responsibility to uphold the ambitions for the project even under a tight deadline.
Honesty: Being honest about sometimes not knowing something or having doubts, creates trust and understanding between the museum and the people who are involved in the project.

Why is it a best practice:

Using co-creation as a method to develop an entire museum, requires dedication, heart for the community, and a little bit of courage as well. The Derby Silk Mill project by Derby Museums is inspiring as a best practice in co-creation, because the transformation of the Derby Silk Mill through the Re:Make the Museum human-centred approach is probably the most far stretching example of co-creation in heritage going on in Europe today.

Description of organisation:

Founded in 2012, Derby Museums Trust manage the collections and museums in Derby. The Silk Mill Industrial Museum was mothballed in 2011 as part of the transition into independent trust and following a failed funding campaign to redevelop the building. This enabled a fresh approach as a new project manager and team brought co-production and human-centred design experience to rethink how audiences and communities might be involved in actively reimagining the museum’s future.


Visser, J., “The convincing transformation of the Derby Silk Mill”: http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2014/07/21/the-convincing-transformation-process-of-the-derby-silk-mill/


Project website for Re:Make the museum, accessed on October 19th 2015 via: http://www.derbymuseums.org/thesilkmill/
Tumblr page for Re:Make the museum, accessed on October 19th 2015 via: http://remakemuseum.tumblr.com
Video Re:Make the Museum by Owen Davies, accessed on October 19th 2015 via: https://vimeo.com/93511330


Interview with Hannah Fox of Derby Museum by Robin van Westen via Skype, on October 19th 2015.
Panel session with Hannah Fox on strategy development for co-creation, during expert meeting ‘Hacking Heritage: the Audience, in Amsterdam on October 5th 2015.

Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England, Derby City Council