Welcome to Derby Silk Mill: Tony Butler, 18th December 2014

Joseph Wright of Derby, "A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun" (1766)

Joseph Wright of Derby, “A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun” (1766)

It seems fitting that a programme – Stories of Change – which explores how energy has shaped culture, society and landscape should be launched at the site of the world’s first factory – The Silk Mill, Derby. Here in 1719, emboldened by the spirit of scientific discovery and by a belief that man might subdue nature, the River Derwent was harnessed to drive the huge water wheel which powered Derby’s Silk Mill. Nearly 100 years before, Francis Bacon anticipated the Enlightenment view of a completely knowable and controllable earth, he wrote in 1623, ‘For you have but to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings.’

Derby Museums’ collections are an apt frame for this intellectual current. Our array of work by Joseph Wright of Derby is the finest in the world. Wright is recognised as the visual artist of the Enlightenment. His works like The Alchymist (1771) and A Blacksmith’s Shop (1771) revealed how science and experimentation stimulated new industry. Wright also painted Enlightened men, such as the polymath Erasmus Darwin and the clockmaker and amateur geologist John Whitehurst. These were men inspired by liberal values of tolerance, experimentation, iconoclasm and a belief in the perfectibility of man. To look on Wright’s famous Orrery (1776), where a man of learning explains the working of the universe to curious minds young and old, is evidence of the optimism of this Enlightened world. Wright also painted the new men of industry. In Derby Museum and Art Gallery hangs a huge painting of Richard Arkwight, the founder of Cromford Mill. Arkwright sits, comfortable, legs open, with a pot belly, a man growing rich on the factory system and the new industrial society where people and machines were becoming part of the same system.

Derby Silk Mill predates both Wright and Arkwright. Opened in 1719 it was a wonder of its age. It was lauded by Daniel Defoe, who described it as an ‘engine’, as if parts of the machines and people who worked them were one and the same. So whilst our friends in Ironbridge might disagree, we’d like to think that for better or worse, industrial society was born here. On the waters of the Derwent was a confluence of nature tamed and Enlightenment values of science and commerce. By the 19th century coal replaced water power at the Silk Mill as a more efficient and powerful source of energy. A reliance on the flow of nature was diminished to be replaced by dependency on extracted fossil fuel.

As industrial society transformed the landscape of the whole UK, Derby, situated in the middle assumed a role as transport hub. The Midland Railway Works produced the locomotives, carriages and wagons which moved both people and fuel. This left a mark on the city’s architecture in the shape of the Roundhouse (locomotive repair shop) and railway terraces. Both are now restored as college library and gentrified houses. Fossil fuel powered the engines which moved people and goods, creating supply chains, growing trades and encouraging new products to be developed and consumed throughout the world . Andrew Handyside’s Derby iron foundry made the bridge across Bassein Creek in Bombay. He also manufactured most of the post boxes during Victoria’s reign. Rolls Royce, pioneers of aeronautics set up in Derby. The Silk Mill has three engines of great significance, the Eagle (1919) which powered the first Transatlantic flight by Alcock and Brown, the Wittle jet engine and the RB211– Rolls Royce’s jet engine which would set the standard for powering large aircraft in the 1970s. In 2015 Rolls Royce will be launching their next generation of jet engines, the Trent XWB and a small exhibition here will mark that launch. Derby’s legacy as a city of makers is one that is indelibly marked by the consumption of fossil fuels. This museum was previously a shrine to engineering and the power to overcome nature, to go faster, reach further and consume more. We have forgotten that we live within finite limits of nature and its resources. As Naomi Klein says in This Changes Everything (2014), ‘as they industrialised long before anyone else, the British should bear more responsibility than most for climate change.’

The future for Derby’s museums is collaborative. The challenges of our age will not be solved just by making and consuming but by working in the public realm to solve problems so that we can live together on our crowded planet. Museums enable individuals and communities to learn together. Museum learning is all of the things much orthodox learning is not: curiosity driven, non-judgemental, non-compulsory, engaging and fun. The people of the future will need to be resilient, resourceful, creative and empathetic systems thinkers – exactly the kind of capacities museum learning can support. At the Silk Mill we are trying to do this via a combination of artists and makers in residence and a participation programme which has so far involved nearly 8500 volunteer hours. We are ‘remaking the museum’. Local people and makers are co-producing the displays, retail and catering spaces and learning programmes. They are designing and fabricating fixtures and fittings in our workshop. We are drawing on Enlightenment values of experimentation, tolerance and the questioning of accepted custom. The best museums are places for encounters, where people can learn together and look at the world differently. Think with our heads, feel with our hearts and make with our hands.

Tony Butler, the author of this post, is the Executive Director of Derby Museums


One response to “Welcome to Derby Silk Mill: Tony Butler, 18th December 2014

  1. Pingback: Imagining our futures with scenarios | Everyday Lives·

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