Stories of Change: The past, present and future of energy

Future Works Library item 23 May 2017

Interview with Tony Butler and Andrea Mercer

Photo Credit: Stories of Change/Future Works

Photo Credit: Stories of Change/Future Works

Tony Butler and Andrea Mercer both work for the Derby Museums Trust - Tony as Executive Director, and Andrea as the Senior Manager for Audiences and Communities.

Discussing their work for the Trust, including the £16.4m redevelopment of 'Derby Silk Mill - Museum of Making', Andrea and Tony look at the roles that the museum and heritage sector can play in the grand story of energy. This 'Future Works' interview is from March 2015.

Interview Transcript - Key

I: = Interviewer

TB: = Tony Butler

AM: = Andrea Mercer

[time e.g. 5:22] = inaudible word at this time

[IA 5:22] = inaudible section at this time

[word] = best guess at word

… = interruption in sentence, trailing off or short pause

TB: I’m Tony Butler and I’m the Executive Director of Derby Museum Trust, and we’re currently sitting in the middle of Derby Silk Mill.

AM: I’m Andrea Mercer and I’m Senior Manager for Audiences and Communities.

TB: Engine and manufacturing are absolutely at the core of the narrative for both the Museum’s Trust and Derby Silk Mill, so the Museum’s Trust runs three museums in the city and it also cares for the largest collection of work by ‘Joseph Wright of Derby’ in the world. And Wright was an 18th century British painter who’s known as the painter of the Enlightenment, and such works, like the Alchemist and the Blacksmith’s Shop and the Orrery point to this 18th century interest in discovery, experimentation and industry. So Wright is the beginning of this broad narrative around industry, creativity, discovery and making; and the Silk Mill is a manifestation of that narrative because it’s built here on the banks of the Derwent, on the site of the world’s first factory, so it’s considered the world’s first factory and dates back from the early 1720s.

AM: And it had a natural source of power as well, to power all the machinery to make the silk. There’s a story of espionage, so John Long who created the building and the mechanics and the machinery inside it, went to Italy and stole all the drawings basically of the machinery and brought it back here with quite a few workers as well and created this fantastic building.

TB: I’ve been working in museums since the late nineties, so I’m a museum-lifer, and I began as a social history curator. My first job was in Wakefield, and Wakefield is an industrial town about 40 miles from here, and the collection there had a really interesting combination of natural specimens that were collected by a guy called Charles Waterton, who travelled all over the world during the 19th century and then material relating to industry within the city, so mining, engineering.

So that’s kind of how my career began. And then I’ve worked in a whole range of museums since then; in my last role I was running a place called the Museum of East Anglian Life, which is a rural life museum in Suffolk. That had displays relating to rural life but also to early rural industry, so steam traction engines… machines that were used to harvest more of the land and to make the land more productive. So probably even then I… grew an interest in how we harness energy in the natural world for industrial society.

I’m a country boy at heart and I’ve always been really interested in how we protect landscapes and the environment and how we deal with the tensions between a 21st century industrial society and the conservation and protection of the landscape. So I founded this project called the Happy Museum Project back in 2011 and that was intended to encourage museums in the UK and beyond to think about how individual and communal wellbeing and sustainability could combine to help us face the challenges of the 21st century and the big challenges around climate change, around resource equity and around energy. So even prior to coming here I had a personal interest in how we, again, as I said, face the challenges of the 21st century, protect things that make life worth living, the biodiversity and the environment around us.

AM: And I have a connection with Tony because I used to work in Wakefield as well, for a Public Art and Architecture Centre which was looking at how to build and promote, I suppose, and design sustainable buildings and sustainable places, and then also helping people learn about how to have a say in some of those areas, I suppose, and how things are built and also learning about the built environment, because built environment isn’t something that’s taught at school. So it was around teaching people around thinking about how they might create their own places and how they might be involved in that and participate in that and have an equal say in that. And from there I came here with a similar mission, if you like, in mind, which was to engage people with this building and with the site of the world’s first factory and everything that goes along with it in terms of making, engineering and engaging people in developing their own skills and sense of identity in the place that they live, which is Derby.

I: Brilliant. Tony, I remember you telling me a story of having a comedian in the mining museum, so I just wanted to ask you about what motivated that and I guess it’s very much a story of energy and how people relate to them stories.

TB: So through the Happy Museum Project we supported a programme up in Woodhorn in Northumberland. Woodhorn is a heritage site on the site of Ashington Colliery; it’s also the fantastic collection of naïve art by the Pitmen Painters. The project we supported there was to appoint a comedian in residence to work with the museum to look at how working life is interpreted across their site. Now, this goes back to the idea of Happy Museum not just being about smiles and laughter, but also about how people work together in communities, how a sense of wellbeing is often developed through affinity and shared interest and the need to support each other. So in the context of a mine, where mostly men are in life-threatening positions every day, humour played a really important part in supporting colleagues and comrades underground. And so the comedian came and worked with front of house staff to encourage them to use humour and to tell jokes and to give people a sense that wellbeing and humour was as important as broader things around health and safety and care and looking after. It was a really important part of culture underground and within these communities. So that is not specific, I think, to working in energy, but that’s a really good example of where, in the extraction industry where people are in life and death situations, humour and personal and individual wellbeing are really important to giving a sense of community, the sort of things that Andrea was talking about earlier.

AM: In terms of thinking about this being the site of the world’s first factory, and as we mentioned, the natural power source being water, in terms of the future of the building and thinking about how we develop the building in trying to be very sustainable, given that we’ve got a very old building that we’re working with and thinking about some of those issues in terms of how we develop the building.

TB: Energy is absolutely… it’s a signifier almost of the history of the city and without it industry and manufacturing wouldn’t have occurred here. So for natural reasons, we’re on the banks of the Derwent, a fast power source; we’re in the middle of a country; we’re near iron fields; we’re near coal fields; there are navigable rivers with the Trent and canals joining to the Grand Union in Birmingham, [9:08] and Derby made it a really central part of the country, even before the railways were built. And that location near a power source, near extractive industries, near other manufacturing centres was a main reason why Derby grew. But as industrial society grew as well, and this desire for consumption grew, the natural features, the river, wasn’t enough to power industry to the volume that was required. And so fossil fuels then replace a sustainable power like water to power a building like this and other factories in the town. As production became more efficient and a higher volume of stuff was produced, consumption grew and we moved into fossil fuel dependency pretty early on, so back in the relatively early part of the 19th century, even before the railways we were becoming dependent on fossil fuels to run manufacturing in the city.

Derby’s location then also meant that the railway industry found a natural home here, middle of the country, again, near supply chains, near the existing canal network, which mean that stuff could be transported round the country prior to the railways being built; and the railways then become another major industry in the city. So the Midland Railways, founded 175 years ago, and locomotives were made here, wagons were made here. It then becomes a distribution centre for coal, natural products, iron, that sort of thing, and so Derby becomes not just a manufacturing centre, but a transportation hub and a distribution centre. And so, along with manufacturers like the Silk Mill, we were transporting stuff all over the country, which then meant the supply chains to support those industries grew up around here because, as the transportation hub, those things could be exported or transported elsewhere in the country. So Derby is a kind of microcosm of industrial society. So we can go back to 1710 to look at the birth of that, and the collections that are here represent, as I said, as a microcosm, a growth in the industry. So we go from things like cotton and silk and clothing, basic stuff, to the manufacturing of railways –

AM: Engines.

TB: Yeah, and then in the 20th century, jet engines. So today’s industry, the three big employers in Derby today are: Rolls-Royce, who are making a new generation of jet engines; Bombardier, who make trains; and Toyota, who make cars; as well as light industry and in the future the more high-tech stuff. So there’s probably not a better place in the country to illustrate the growth and the change of industrial society and its connection to fossil fuel consumption and the natural world than Derby. It’s a manageable space, not too big, and all those elements to the story are here. The missing element is the thing that we’re going to be working on over the next couple of years, which is the future and how we use creativity, manufacturing and making to build a more sustainable future. And we’re seeing the kind of beginnings of that, aren’t we, in places like Infinity Park?

AM: Yeah, and I think thinking about some of the engines that we’ve got behind us, in front of us and thinking about our impact on the environment, so we’re creating these fantastic things and we’re still creating these fantastic things but what is travel doing to the environment, and the ways that we travel? So we’ve got some work to do around telling people and making them aware around their impact on the environment in terms of flight etc., vehicular transport…

I: So your collection in a way is a way of convening conversations around these kind of objects and [13:45]?

TB: Yeah.

AM: Yeah, and building a community to think around how we tackle some of those issues, so building a community of makers and people who are interested in making to try and tackle some of those really big, real-world issues is really something that we’re wanting to try and do here, yeah.

I: Thank you. So just to ask you what you’re both working on or thinking about right at the moment to do with energy and [14:17 change]?

TB: Well, the big –

AM: The biggy.

TB: [Chuckles] The big…

AM: You do the biggy [chuckles].

TB: We’re about to begin a £16.5 million redevelopment of this building, so that will consume the organisation for the next four to five years, and that will redevelop the whole building, bring the whole building into public use for the first time, and it will look at the heritage of making in the city. We’re calling it Derby’s Museum of Making so it will be looking at how creativity, how a desire to experiment and discover, all stemming from the work of Wright, was manifested in the city, but we’re doing it with the community. So the community will be intricately involved with co-producing our new displays, working with the museum staff to come up with unexpected elements, but to ensure that what’s produced represents the soul of the city, so it won’t just be a traditional industrial museum, it will be a museum of making and creativity. I think the thing that we will be most interesting, but also most of use, is how we use the past to help us approach the challenges of the future. And we can name the challenges: climate change, resource equity, resource depletion, greater desire for autonomy as individuals. But the 20th century industrial society has put us in a place where that’s much more difficult to address, and what our challenge will be in the future is to say what did we learn over the last 300 years about our ingenuity and creativity to address the challenges of the future. And are we prepared to change, I think, would be the big question.

AM: So in terms of me personally working on or thinking about skills and what skills might be needed in the future, so thinking around the STEM agenda with the arts and thinking around what skills are going to be needed in things like green technologies etc., so how to get young people engaged in that now in a really exciting way, looking at the past to think about the future is something that’s really interesting. So we’ve got things like Code Clubs etc. that are making young people think about logical thinking and think about how they might programme things in the future, so building skills around that. But also it just occurs to me [chuckles] we’re also working with you and your students, but it just occurs to me whether we should do something like a climate change hackathon or something as part of the project, which might be quite interesting, around science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. There’s a lot of talk around the STEM Agenda at the moment in terms of getting young people engaged in those subjects because they’re the future careers that are going to be needed. So we’re also adding arts in there because it’s about creative thinking, it’s about innovation, it’s about risk taking, and you can’t have STEM without the arts. So that’s something that we’re working on, it’s something that is very much coming from America, so America are starting to work on some of these things. So yeah, it’s something we’re sort of researching, keeping an eye on and trying to develop as part of the work here.

I: Fantastic.

AM: So in terms of making and the impact on our work in the next five to ten years, as well as promoting people to make, I think we need to be also looking at things like the product life cycle, so as we’re encouraging people to make, where are the materials coming from, so tackling some of the issues around those things. And also just thinking about the Happy Museum Project that we’re going to be involved in, the [18:51 Five-by-Five], which –

TB: So that’s a programme that five museums in England are going to be involved with, looking at some of the principles around Happy Museum can influence organisational change over a long period. So this will be a five-year study rather than a one-off project-based piece of work, and it will look at how ideas around wellbeing and sustainability can be embedded within organisations. We are working alongside Manchester Museum, the Museums of Canterbury…. The other thing we didn’t talk about is how society will change over the next 5-10 years because I think often we assume the future will be a bit like the past but slightly different, but who would have known ten years ago the ubiquitousness of smartphones and how smartphones have totally revolutionised the way people communicate with each other. So you don’t know what the future is going to hold; you could make some guesses, and if you look at the long term trends there are issues around climate change, some around resource depletion and some around global conflict, food supply being an important one. So those kinds of external factors, you could make a guess, but we don’t know.

What would interest me is how different society may be in twenty years’ time and will we move into that real post-industrial society where individuals have much more agency, they are self-organising some of the more traditional layers of the society, and the state perhaps will have less [19:44]. So an organisation like a museum, which this museum has 150 years of a civic responsibility for the city, for maintaining its material culture and its history, will have to adapt to quite profound changes within society. And I wonder how prepared cultural institutions like ours will be able to adapt to those changes.

The other issue, and it probably comes further on in the discussion, is around… will technology enable us to really behave differently? And if technology enables us to carry on behaving as before but using less fossil fuel, is that truly sustainable; does that really create a just and fair society? If all one power source does is replace another, but still leads a very individualised, and atomised society, then that’s not really progress; that’s just replace… it’s like fossil fuel replacing water power; it’s not really looking at the fundamentals of what it means to be a human being and how we live together in a crowded earth.

I: Thank you. OK, so I’ll go onto this one: are you an optimist or a pessimist when you consider the next few decades and climate change story?

TB: I mean it’s not looking good at the moment, and there’s still an unwillingness, I think, in the West, to share and to really address climate change in an equitable way.

We work with companies and, well, we just had an exhibition that Rolls-Royce supported us in doing, about the new jet engine, which is great and it’s more efficient and it will enable more people to fly around the world, but most of those people are in the West and most of those people are… or if they’re in other parts of the world they’re a very small portion of society. So if our efforts are just about efficiency and reduction in carbon output, but don’t address some of those broader issues, then I’m a bit pessimistic about climate change. At the moment we’re looking at 4° heating and the next 10-15 years will be absolutely critical in enabling us to get down to 2° but that’s going to need considerable international agreement and probably some real change in lifestyle in the West. At the moment I don’t see… and you can see this from the fragmentation of Europe, I don’t see the leadership in the West that will enable its societies to accommodate change more. So maybe the leadership will come from the East, and that’s something that perhaps will be quite difficult I think for us, after 200 years of hegemony, but maybe it will come from China and the East and perhaps that may be a good thing.

AM: So in terms of whether I’m an optimist or a pessimist I’m quietly sort of optimistic [chuckles] in terms of, I guess, what we’re trying to do here, in terms of thinking about the Maker Movement, and I know the UN have reported something like if we don’t reverse the trend in carbon emissions in five years there will be irreversible effects for weather and climate, which will increase people’s suffering. So thinking about the Maker Movement, I think there’s no other kind of movement, and people within that, that can help tackle some of those massive challenges that we have. I know some designers, innovators, manufacturers are working with makers to try and tackle some of these things, so people are beginning to work with each other a little bit more, especially around, as mentioned, green technologies and things like that. So I think if we can harness that Maker Movement to help with some of these massive issues, and ultimately the destruction of the planet, then I think we’ve got to give it a go.

TB: And some of that leadership is coming from unexpected places. If you take things like transport, the new and efficient mass transport systems are being developed in South America, so places like Medellin in Columbia and in parts of Bolivia, it’s much cheaper to build guided bus lanes than it would be to build a tram system in the West, we think, ‘Go and build a tram system,’ costs millions of pounds like it did in Edinburgh, but actually a guided bus system is probably more efficient for moving people round and if your buses are running on hydrogen cells or renewable energy then there’s a cheap and communal way to move people around and congestion and overpopulation is a huge problem. I’m awful, I drove into work today, I only live seven miles away and it took me half-an-hour to get in, I could’ve got the train… you got the train, didn’t you?

AM: I got the train.

TB: Yeah, see, much more holy than I am! [Laughter]

But me and tens-of-thousands of other people driving short distances to get to work when if we invested in cycle lanes, if we invested in cheap, comfortable, regular mass-transit systems, that might be the starting point for behavioural change. But what that means is moving away from an atomised transport system; so we value the car and people value their independence, but maybe in addressing… I mean transportation is just one particular issue, but in addressing transportation we then begin to have a further impact on other elements of behavioural change that are required to address climate change. But the most interesting stuff is happening in South America and in bits of Asia, and we need to learn from them.

AM: See my question around energy and climate change would be thinking around what the role of hackerspaces might be globally, and there’s an aside to that, how can we motivate or engage makers to tackle some of the sustainability challenges that we have? Just to note, I went to Whitworth Art Gallery recently and they’ve got a fantastic new building which is, I think, [28:11] actually. But they were talking about they’ve installed a ground source heat pump and what their issue with that was… it wasn’t working I was there, but what their issue was is they don’t have anyone with skills within the estates department of Manchester University to actually deal with those issues, so they’re having to go out to contractors, specialised contractors basically, who are more expensive. So there’s an issues around skills and also barriers in terms of installing some of these technologies or working with some of these technologies in building. So in terms of thinking about our Museum of Making and the Silk Mill and development of the Silk Mill, I think we can learn a lot from some of the issues and problems that they’re having in terms of how we think about sustainability with this building.

TB: Yeah, good. Quickly then, a question I would ask is theoretic: if Joseph Wright came back in 2050 what would he paint?

[End of Recording]

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