Historically the curator, the great arbiter of knowledge, was always the final voice on what makes it to exhibition. What objects are deemed ‘significant’ enough, what narratives are the most revealing about civilisation, what the ‘people’ need to see were all decided by the curator. As Sir Edmund Fotheringham-Smythe R.A. noted at the 17th Annual Meeting of the British Curatorial Society in 1902,
“The modern Curator must allow that the lowly enquirer is merely seeking to ameliorate his foolishness… It is of the utmost importance that the newly educated classes never fail to see their freedom of access to our Museum as a privilege nobly conferred to be enjoyed with humility and gratitude.”
As ridiculous as this quote sounds to modern ears, the sentiments within are not entirely dead in contemporary museum practice. It’s not uncommon to hear museum professionals talk about their visitors as merely passive ‘users’ of the building.
The need for a change was recognised near the end of the 20th century. This was where co-creation first snuck into museums through the use of different teams: learning teams, programming teams, exhibitions teams, curatorial teams, all coming together to co-create exhibitions and programmes exclusively for visitors. Though co-creation amongst a set of professionals skilled in their own areas of work, this still resembles a model where the institution is ultimately the creator and the visitor is still a passive consumer.
Museums in the modern world find themselves competing increasingly with the on-demand, digital world. Competing and losing. The real question is not simply how to embrace this new development – though this is an important consideration – but how to offer something unique that cannot be sourced through a digital format. At Derby Silk Mill this means meaningful making experiences.
Co-creation at Derby Museums means co-production. The concept of ‘citizen-making’ inspired by the American Maker Movement is a unique and innovative approach in a UK museum. It provides an experimental and unexpected means to explore heritage and increases public participation. What this means is that when you visit the museum everything you see in front of you is the result of co-production. From the chairs you sit on to the exhibition cases; from the café where you buy your drink to the artist commission on the wall; the interpretation for the objects to the workshops where you can learn new skills, have all been co-produced with the people of Derby.
This new idea was first applied through the Re:Make project in 2013, which saw the ground floor space in the museum re-imagined in partnership with a Maker in Residence, visitors and volunteers of all abilities. But before a single tool was lifted the museum was opened to the public with nothing in it except for a simple question: what do you want this place to be?
By starting the project lab at this most basic level, the museum was immediately able to respond to the needs of the city. The key stories that inspired people about Derby also came out, so the collections you see on display at the Silk Mill represent the breadth of activity taking place in the city, ranging from ceramics to transport; extractive industries to engineering; and textiles to horology and scientific instrument making.
This year we launched another co-production project to support the Eroica Britannia vintage cycling festival at Bakewell with the ‘Velocipathy’ exhibition at Haddon Hall. We partnered up with Bike It Derby, a scheme run by Sustrans and Derby City Council to help jobseekers in the city access sustainable transport to be able to get to and from work. When the jobseekers arrived at the Silk Mill it quickly became apparent that previous placements had not provided the meaningful impact they needed. During their time with us they selected the objects, picked out the key themes, learned how to use 3D software to design the exhibition, learned how to use workshop equipment included the laser cutter and CNC machine, and built the exhibition from scratch to their own designs. When we say learned, we mean as much from each other as from the museum staff who, in turn, learned from the jobseekers. The end result was a hugely popular exhibition that spent a month on display at Haddon Hall before being re-installed at Derby Silk Mill. The other outcome that is unique to the co-production approach was a job. Several of the jobseekers went on to employment as a result of the project.
Both of these projects resulted in mutual learning experiences. The understanding of the collections is increasing all the time as the museum enters a continuous dialogue with its visitors. Ways of presenting and interpreting knowledge are being re-imagined constantly and barriers to contemporary making in the city are being broken down through partnerships with major companies.
This way of working is not exclusively applied to exhibitions programming. It underpins the way we do everything at Derby Museums from our educational programming, built entirely in consultation with local schools to meet their specific needs, to the selection of a new mascot for the ‘notice nature feel joy’ exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery.
None of this is to say that the curator is an unnecessary presence in the museum. Indeed, specialist curatorial knowledge should underpin any successful museum co-production project. Without an understanding of the conservation, handling and security requirements for collections, projects could inadvertently put objects in jeopardy. Equally, there will always be the hidden histories in the collections that the curator can share but this must be done in an involving manner that allows for fresh perspectives and enquiry.
The role of the curator needs to change to be something more inclusive. It is still a route into collections for many museum visitors but today the curator’s voice must be one in constant dialogue, for co-produced knowledge about the collections will ensure that the museum is significant to as many people as possible.
Co-production is about ensuring the museum is relevant, sustainable and says something meaningful about a place, a people or a theme. Most importantly of all it’s about rooting the museum at the core of a community, ensuring it becomes a worthwhile resource to the people who interact with it.
The more closely we work with our audiences to discover, develop and produce the content, the better the museum will be for everyone.
“Daniel Martin is the Curator of Making for Derby Museums, based at Derby Silk Mill. Daniel’s background as an industrial specialist saw him to curatorial roles at Leeds Industrial Museum and Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield. He sits on the national STI-SSN (Science, Technology and Industry Subject Specialist Network) steering group and is an ACE Museum Mentor to two heritage railways, Middleton Railway (Leeds) and Midland Railway – Butterley, Derbyshire. In his spare time he is an active maker, cyclist and motorbike enthusiast.”