At the end of August I went to the Museum of Making in Derby. This was once known as the Silk Mill Industrial Museum, and had been built on the site of the Lombe Mill by the banks of the River Derwent. The Lombe Mill has a long history. It was opened in 1721 and was one of the first manufactories in England. In 1834 it was the birthplace of the trade union movement. During the 19th century the mill fell into disrepair, but in the 1920s it was taken over by the newly-formed local electricity board to act as a support building for Derby’s first power station. In 1975 the local council took it over and turned it into the Silk Mill Industrial Museum.
The last time I visited the museum – just before it closed in 2015 – it was a tired building. Many of the exhibits were static and uninspiring. There were displays of old engines that had bee made by Rolls-Royce in the local works. A few displays told the story of the now defunct railway works. Upstairs, the exhibits that had been designed to appeal to the children of the 1970s and 1980s were covered in dust and neglect. The austerity measures forced on the local council had forced them to reduce funding and divert it towards the more central – and more popular – Derby Museum and Art Gallery. Dead metal and old plaques were no match for Egyptian mummies and Scottish soldiers in the eyes of the local children. Promises were made that the old Silk Mill would reopen, but no date was given.
Six years later, the Silk Mill finally reopened. The building had been refurbished and cleaned up. Old rooms had been reopened, redecorated and repurposed. New displays had been made to show Derby’s place in the world and to celebrate the history of making and creativity that had grown up in the town. But these to me were just sterile and showed only a fraction of what had been in the original museum. With their flashing lights and screens they would appeal to children, but only for a moment.
Then I went upstairs.
It looked like somebody had taken the debris of 300 years from the attics of the town and spread it through the building. Old cabinets held strange models of aircraft and trains. Instruction manuals for long-forgotten pieces of machinery had been stacked next to racks of lithographed maps and technical drawings. Everywhere I looked, my eye was drawn to something. But what was I looking at? I had no idea.
“Can I help?” A woman wearing a badge with ‘Explainer’ written on it looked at me.
“Yes,” I said. “What is this place?”
She took me to a touchscreen. “Here,” she said. “We’re digitising the archives. You can look for things by a keyword or you can put in the location you found something in.” She pointed at the letters and numbers that hung from the ceiling and the racks. “The system will tell you about it.”
I thought about one of the models that I had seen in a wooden cabinet and typed in the location code. The screen displayed a blank form. The guide smiled in apology. “It’s going to take a while to get everything in the system. But we will get it in place. And then we’ll invite people to add their own stories about these things so everybody can read them. If you come back in a month, there should be some more things in the archive.”
I looked at the long loft where great machines had once twisted silk skeins into threads, ready to be woven into cloth, and I saw the place with new respect. Here was a place to come and look, to investigate and discover. Here was a place to be inspired. It was a proper museum. “I’ll definitely be back,” I said.
OMP Admin Note: John Nedwill is a writer, OMP Network member, and a regular #OneMillionProject Blogger. His work can be found on Wattpad.com and in the One Million Project’s Short Story Anthologies published in February 2018.
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