Act: Inspiration

How a Community’s Imagination Reshaped a Museum

September 6, 2017

What would you do if you were appointed to run a museum, with very little budget, a very small team, and a sense that the place had run out of direction and vision?  If you’re Hannah Fox, and you’ve just been asked to come up with ideas for the future of the Silk Mill Museum in Derby, you turn to the imagination, in particular, to how best to enable the people of the city to apply their imaginations to the museum’s future.  It’s a fascinating story.  I visited the Museum in July, and Hannah kindly showed me around, and made time for the interview that follows.  Their approach was implications for how many different organisations might approach change in a way that releases, rather than sidelines, the imagination.

Hannah Fox.

Hannah came to the Museum in 2011, at a time when the place was in the doldrums.  A big application to Heritage Lottery Fund had been knocked back, and the Museum had decided to move all of the city’s 3 museums out of its control and into an independent trust, recognising it wasn’t the best body to shape its future.  Hannah came in, with a background in design, advertising and photography, and was told “here’s a little bit of money, have a play, with this building and this story”.  As Hannah told me, her response was “Oh my god, who gets to do that?  Right?  I got this key, and no resource, but this brilliant building to play with.  So that’s what I did.  For what was supposed to be 3 months, and I’m here 6 years later”

She inherited an industrial museum which was home to various collections that related to the story of manufacturing in Derbyshire, including 16 massive Rolls Royce engines.  I’ll let her pick up the story from there…

So where did you start?

I started by opening the doors back up within a month and half of it closing.  And doing an event over a weekend called “Shaping the vision”, and getting all my mates, that I could persuade, to come in as volunteers to help me run a pop-up café.

I phoned up Rolls Royce and said, “Have you got anything that would be really nice and interactive?”  They brought a massive Scalextric set.  We had music, and a big blackboard that we drew out in the shape of the Silk Mill floor plan, with a, “What could we do here?” question.  And people came.  880 people came over two days.  The curious, to find out, “Who’s this person, what’s she on about, what does she know?”  She’s got an accent not from Derby, so therefore, you know, the same old thing, “Someone’s coming in and… “  I was able to say, “Well I’ve been here since I was 14.  I’ve been to this museum since I was 14.”  So challenging some of those preconceptions that people had.

Lots of people very angry.  Very angry, because they are passionate about it and they’re very upset their museum’s been closed.  So briefing my teams, and the people that were working with me to go and understand that, and empathise with that.  And say, that passion, the fact they’ve turned up, even if it’s with their arms folded, is an energy that we need.  Because we haven’t got any money, or resource, and we need their help to make this happen.  I’ve never made a museum before.  I’ve never created a museum before.  But there’s a massive city of experts that we can crowd-source this knowledge and these skills from, and co-produce this vision.

So from the very beginning you put that “What would happen if…” question just completely up front?

Absolutely.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  And people contributed these brilliant ideas.  Like, “Well, I’ve always wanted to … I’m 16, I can’t go to the pub, but I play music and I’ve got a band.  I want to perform in public.”  Or, “I think I want to be an engineer but I don’t know what that is and my mum thinks I should be an accountant.”  Or, older people saying, “Well, we just want somewhere to be social.”  Or, “What if we ran a conceptual conference here, how would that work?”

Storage cases made in the Museum’s own workshop by volunteers.

And I’m just going, “Yeah, that sounds great, yeah.  Let’s do that, okay.  Yes, fab, let’s do it.”  Okay, so how do we do that?  Then started to prototype those things and open that process up.  So here’s this brilliant building.  I don’t know how to put a bar on, but we can learn.  Or if you want to come and play music, can you book the bands, and I’ll make sure the security is in place?  Etcetera.  And then over that period of time we just basically ran over 100 events with 30,000 people coming in and playing in the space.

So that was shaping it, and understanding, iterating what was needed, and understanding better.  We use design thinking approaches, so human centred design mind-sets to define and understand, to think and imagine what might be, and then to model and prototype that in order to redefine that [the Museum produced ‘Derby Museums Human Centred Design Handbook‘ a brilliant guide to this approach]. And knowing that prototyping is low risk, and will cost but ultimately, then enables us to have proof of concept, or to know when it’s gone wrong that that’s actually something we should steer away from.

Was there resistance?

To change, yeah, absolutely.  Active resistance both in the public mind to some degree, because it’s change, and it’s scary to see that the model railway I love might be at risk, therefore I’m going to rail against that.  And equally for staff to sense that there’s something unknown and it’s really hard to get on board with something if you’re not quite sure what it’s going to be.  And then for funders to do that too.  To convince them that it’s okay.  This will be great, and them to give you the resource in order to take it to the next stage.  So it’s really scary, actually.

Designed by the Museum’s volunteers … these ‘combs’ allow crates to transform into chairs (see below).

It’s the biggest project I’d ever done.  At the time it was nothing because there was no money and I didn’t know what it was going to be. But easily as you started to see there was a momentum building, this is actually a more than £10 million project and, “Oh my god, how are we going to fundraise that?”  And how are we going to hold true to those values of design approaches and creative thinking and creating space for us to be experimental and iterative when someone just wants to know what it’s going to be?

My job as I see it is to hold the space for that to happen, and to continue to do that.  And more people getting involved and getting on board with it.  As soon as you empathise and they feel that fear and they’ve tried it once, and it might have not gone right, but they’ve not been blamed for it not going right, then you start to gain your self-confidence hopefully.   Collectively.  And also to be transparent when I’ve got it wrong.

So your role is more of a facilitator and holding the space, rather than a conventional leadership role?

I think that’s what leadership should be, personally.  Absolutely, sometimes you have to be the pioneer, and you have to be the person that’s got the vision, or is forming the vision.  And there’s absolutely a role for that.  And there has been times when that’s absolutely been the thing I’ve had to do.

But then I’m always conscious that if that’s the situation and something happens to me, then the risk of it all going back into the norms, or for it all to stop again are too big, so you have to spread the load of that vision.  You have to give a broader ownership, for others to feel that they are doing it too.  I think we’ve tipped that balance now.

Experiments in new ways to display items from the Museum’s collections.. .

If I get run over by a bus tomorrow, this project will still happen because there is a much broader ownership.  The culture for us as an organisation, as a new organisation, and we structured to achieve that too, but also I think the momentum of the volunteers and the expectations of the people that it’s not just us doing it, but we are doing it, together, for our collective good and for the good of our city, and our citizens, and each other, is true.  Where perhaps it was a, “Yeah, it will be great”, it’s really embodying it now.

For people visiting today, what do you see there that makes you think, “Oh, this has been designed by lots of people together?”

This is a project in iteration so the Project Lab that we’ve just had for the last 18 month phase has just closed.  We’ve actually got the poppies and the weeping window from the Tower of London poppies is on the Silk Mill currently, so we’ve got hundreds of people there today, right now.

You walk into a ground floor space because we’ve just basically done a prototype strip out of the ground floor with a bit of capital money we secured from the city initially to get the building back open as a space to play better.  All of the engines were removed back to Rolls Royce, because they’d been sitting there since Rolls Royce had given them in the early 1970s, and by their very nature, become restrictive.  And are dated.  Are almost like a graveyard to engineering.  We all collectively, including Rolls Royce, agreed, that’s not the story we want to tell here.  So let’s open that space out and just strip it out entirely, and not put any collections in it to start with, and see then what emerges and let’s do a prototype make of it.

We put good workshop spaces in there, so there’s a CNC machine, laser cutters, we have a workshop supervisor on staff now, and we designed and manufactured all of the elements that are in that ground floor, from the café to the chairs, to the exhibition cases, etc.  And they’re all movable and able to respond to whatever that event or activity we might be putting on, whether that is a full conference hire now, and earning income from that, or whether that’s a quiet school visit, or whatever might happen in there.  That’s allowed us to then understand again what’s working, what isn’t, and then to think about the scale of that.

And to then to secure the first round passes for the £16.4 million that the project is going to cost from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council and the City itself.  That’s enabled us to show the evidence to them of how it’s working, and it makes sense, and they backed it from that perspective.

So the Heritage Lottery Fund changed their mind when the new approach came in?

Yeah.  We’re not through the next stage yet, which we will hear about in September so this last phase of 18 months has been about creating the next level of action plan and taking it to something called RIBA stage 3 from an architecture perspective but it’s been doing it iteratively.  So our design team now, where it was me originally, is massive.

We’ve got architects, exhibition designers, evaluation designers, business planners, interpretation  designers, the staff team collections, etc., etc.  And the rest of our organisation and then all of our volunteers and co-production partners.  We are the big design team for this Museum of Making.  That’s the design team now.  So we’ve got it to the next stage and we’ve put that to those funders and said, “Right, here you go, this is what it is now, what do you think?”  We’re hopeful they’ll turn round and go, “Yeah, great, build it.”  And then we make it together.

And what will a Museum of Making be?

Well it will be a mixed use space, so it has three principles.  So “Inspired by the makers of the past”, so we want to put 100% access to the collections, whereas it was 4% when it was an industrial museum.  And that’s pretty typical for museums.  These are public assets, public resources and so they should therefore be 100% accessible to the public.

So how do we do that?  We’ve got 130,000 items.  How do we do that?  So we’ve been developing ideas about how we’re going to display those as open storage, etc.  And those stories and narratives about the makers of the past that we need to capture as they are going, because the past is yesterday.  So we have current people who are making in the city.  We have just had a conversation about a manufacturer 9 miles up the road that has closed last year.  Those stories are ever decreasing, or changing.

The next phase is “Made by the makers of today”, so how do we co-make the museum.  We’ve got this great status as the number one hi-tech city in the U.K.  More people employed in advanced engineering than any other city, and yet we have some of the lowest attainment in schools.  And people in the locality are not aspiring to those careers, or knowing that they’re even accessible to them.  So we’re importing those skills.  How do we change that dynamic and how does our museum and the cultural organisations play a part in making that shift?

For young people to feel aspirational, move from STEM to STEAM, so Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths, and creative thinking, as the bedrock for all of those things.  So we’re going to co-make it.  We’re going to manufacture the fit out of the museum on-site, by the public.  Rather than it go off to exhibition designers.  Of course it’s out to tender, but those people that will lead that have to construct it and manufacture it with our volunteers.   So we have those first two principles.

Project space where, supervised, volunteers make things for the Museum.

Then the programmes that we deliver in the museum, whether they be from schools to life-long learning, to graduate start-up businesses to whatever, how do those empower the makers of the future?  So that Derby continues to be this place of excellence and making.  And we understand how making makes us feel better.  Not simply to see ourselves as consumers but to see ourselves as producers of good stuff.  Things that make a good social impact.  And are environmentally conscious.  This is a building that was run in the early 18th century off one power source and produced 300 million yards of silk thread, a day, off a water source.  And now it’s run off a power station.  So it’s to open up that conversation about what is the future of that?

Something that I’ve asked everybody that I’ve spoken to while I’ve been doing this has been if you had been elected in the election that we just had, and you ran on a platform of “Make Britain Imaginative Again”, what would you do in your first 100 days in office?

Oh how wonderful.  Well it would be to understand what’s stopping us from being imaginative.  Coming back to I’ve got assumptions that I would make about what I think is stopping, and some of that with real knowledge because of the experience I’ve had, but I think I have to go and really understand what is stopping it from happening already.  So your first bit has got to really be to know the barriers to imagination in order to make any change happen, and get under it.  So it’s research.  It’s the research and understanding what those barriers are, first off.  And not assuming you know.  Of if you have those assumptions, going and testing them.

So you said you had some hunches?

Well for me, yeah.  On top of that is then, look for good practice.  Where are those small tiny things that are happening?  As you find them, where are those places where imagination is rife and, beyond my knowledge, where are exciting things happening, and what can we learn from that?

Some of my hunches are I think our natural move into adulthood is something that happens.  The curriculum and the exam system in the UK is consistently failing to meet the needs of young people, quite frankly.  It absolutely de-risks… it’s about passing exams and it’s not about young people being able to be playful, experiment, and about them knowing that to fail is okay.  We are not cultivating a culture of that in our schools.

And we’re not cultivating a culture of that in our teachers.  We are not enabling our teachers to create that environment because we are results driven.  So that’s fundamental.  That is it basically.  From the museum’s perspective, our vision is how do we accept that currently there’s not a lot we can do about changing that in school right now, but what we can do is create a space to enable those teachers and those young people to do that stuff.  And then support the change to happen if that’s possible.  To support our city.

Derby Silk Museum.

Give them something to step off onto.

Exactly, exactly.  There’s something in there.  Where are those spaces, like you said before, that we can then encourage that creativity and imagination and risk taking and to have that attitude of feeling the fear and doing it anyway.  As habitual rather than the exception.

So you’d look around, you’d get a sense of what was going on, you’d identify the best examples.

Amplify those.  And stop the stuff that’s not working.  You know, which is hard.

And do the opposite of all the things that are creating the problem.

Yeah, stop.  If you’re in a position of power, say no.  Stop it.  When I say it’s not working, if it’s obviously a drain… you know, just because it’s not working doesn’t mean that it can’t have opportunity and potential, but if it is a drain, and it is the counter to that, then stop it.

Is your sense that we have a crisis of imagination in this country?

I think if we’re not there, then we’re about to be.  Yeah.  And for so many reasons of course to do with media, to do with the way that we engage with each other.  The lack of conversation, body language, the things that are stopping us from getting excited with each other as communities and bouncing ideas off each other, and that fear of missing out, and that judgement that we put on ourselves.  All of those things.  I think it is absolutely endemic.  We have to do something about it.  We have to.  We have to.  Because we will just get to the point where we stifle ourselves.  And we’re at it, we’re beyond it, where we’re messing up big time and we aren’t going to have a way of getting out of this hole we’ve dug ourselves.  So we’ve got to do it now.

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of The Transition Handbook, The Transition Companion, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, 21 Stories of Transition and most recently, From What Is to What If: unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. He presents the podcast series ‘From What If to What Next‘ which invites listeners to send in their “what if” questions and then explores how to make them a reality.  In 2012, he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and was on Nesta and the Observer’s list of Britain’s 50 New Radicals. Hopkins has also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought and A Good Read, in the French film phenomenon Demain and its sequel Apres Demain, and has spoken at TEDGlobal and three TEDx events. An Ashoka Fellow, Hopkins also holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth and has received two honorary doctorates from the University of the West of England and the University of Namur. He is a keen gardener, a founder of New Lion Brewery in Totnes, and a director of Totnes Community Development Society, the group behind Atmos Totnes, an ambitious, community-led development project. He blogs at and and tweets at @robintransition.

Tags: building resilient communities, imagination, maker culture