Interview with Hannah Fox and Daniel Martin
Hannah Fox, Project Director at the Derby Silk Mill, spoke to 'Future Works' alongside the Silk Mill's Curator of Making, Daniel Martin, back in March 2015.
The interview focuses primarily on the Silk Mill's long-standing relationship with energy - a two-way relationship which not only fuels innovative change at the museum, but stimulates constructive conversations about energy within the museum's surrounding communities as well.
Interview Transcript - Key
HF: = Hannah Fox
DM: = Daniel Martin
[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
HF: My name’s Hannah Fox and I am the Silk Mill Project Director here at the Silk Mill in Derby.
DM: And I’m Daniel Martin, I’m the curator of making in the same place. So the very reason that this building exists where it exists is because of energy and that necessity to have a source of energy to power what was the world’s first large industrial undertaking really, so you’ve got this position here on the river where you can redirect the course of water around by maintaining that flow of power, and that can drive a huge wheel.
So this mill when it was built in 1720, 1721, in that period, was such a huge water wheel, was using direct drive, drove all of the machinery in this water mill, so energy is the very core of why it’s here.
HF: And then thinking about the output of that, then you’ve got a great quote by Dafoe in the 18th century, he talks about the fact that in this engine there were 23,000 wheels, 94,000 movements that were producing 73,000 yards of silk thread every time that water wheel went round, which it did three times a minute. So there it’s about one source of power, but the output being such a scale that just had never been seen before and that really is the story of this site definitely.
I came in as a consultant actually to Derby Museums, as it was when it was part of the local authority, in 2011 and the position was the silk mill had been closed, it had been mothballed, in order for it to try and look at it again, at what it needed to be in terms of relevancy to the city and unpicking that story and understanding it better. And I was asked to come in and start exploring that with the city and with the communities, and to see whether we could get a stronger story linked to then where the future was for the building, that was much more relevant and resilient as a result of that approach of working with communities. And that was my background, working in human-centred design approaches, co-production approaches with community-generated projects that put people and place at the heart of those developments. And then as the museums moved into a Trust I became part of the leadership team for Derby Museums.
DM: I’m from Derby as Hannah is, Derby born and bred, and I moved to Yorkshire and I was working as a curator up in Leeds, and have done as well in Sheffield, and I was becoming a little bit frustrated with how the contemporary state of curating was, particularly with industrial collections at the time. And then I saw the advert that Hannah and everyone put out here and I just thought, ‘That’s what needs to happen in museums,’ and it’s this co-curating approach, this co-production approach which offers the sustainability which currently doesn’t exist in a lot of other museums around the world, it’s not just in Britain, it’s around the world. So I saw that as a really exciting opportunity to become part of what was happening here in Derby and it’s right at the forefront of what’s happening in contemporary museological practice and that’s a massive appeal. And also Derby’s got an incredible collection and I couldn’t really not come and work with that, so that’s why I’m here and I’m glad to be here!
HF: I think that there is a shift needed that’s recognised within the museum sector more broadly actually, but there’s definitely a shift needed about the museum’s understanding of moving from a didactic approach to engagement and learning within our spaces, and that we were the experts and therefore people should be lucky to come in and learn about these things and we’ll allow them to learn about these things, to realising that the origins of museums were about being open and safe spaces for everybody to be able to access and that were full of things for discovery and enjoyment and learning. Because there weren’t many places that you could do that and our shift is very much about building those spaces and trying to get as much access to the collections as possible, rather than them being something that is hidden and preserved and conserved, which they absolutely need to be, because they need to be protected, but what is the point of protecting them if people can’t get to them?
DM: Exactly, and I think also it needs to go outside, it’s important what this site stands for, what the heritage locally stands for, but the reason we’ve enjoyed such a progressive slant is because we’ve looked outside of Derby and we’ve looked outside of Britain and we’ve also looked to contemporary industry and what they’re looking at in terms of their own future works, what are people going to be building the future? They’re already there, they’re thinking about it; it’s just not become public knowledge. For us to stay relevant, to be that sort of institution that can inspire change for the future and inspire young makers to get involved in industry in the future and engineering of which there is a real problem in this country, particularly amongst young girls, of getting people into engineering and getting them thinking, because they think it’s not a world for them, and we need to be that intermediary that explains you can do this, you should be doing this, it’s your ideas that are going to change the way we think about the future of engineering and the future of making. And so by working with industry and looking inwards at our own heritage and collections, we’re in the prime position really to go and make that difference.
HF: And cultural organisations are absolutely the best place to have that conversation between industry and education and public and talk about past, present, future and contemporary practice as well as historical practice and then innovating and being entrepreneurial and we should be those spaces where those discussions are safe to have.
We were part of the Art Science Prize Network and we co-deliver the Art Science Prize UK and that is a global programme, learning programme, with young people exploring big subjects, big questions that are there in the world and that need to be really thought about carefully, but the solutions that are developed by the young people are driven by personal passion, so making sure that it’s something that they actually want to have and how they can understand that, so that they’re then passionate about looking at how they might change things.
This year’s theme is biodiversity, that’s really interesting to be looking with the young people about that subject and trying to explore where they might get excited about that through things like, again the bringing together of arts and sciences. Last year’s theme was energy of the future, and it was fascinating to see both the conversation around this site with young people in Derby who hadn’t understood the significance of the building and of what had happened here and continues to happen here, which again is our job. And then for them to project into the future and go, ‘OK, well the world has a lot of challenges, the Earth only has a finite amount of resources and we’re nearly there, what are we going to do about that?’ And that can be incredibly scary for young people to try to think about, because that just seems so vast that it’s never going to get solved, but by personalising it and bringing it back to something that is actually tangible that they can explore and it’s that small steps approach that that kind of programme can do. I think we’ve got some really interesting ideas that came through around things like exploring how you can use the big plumes of jellyfish across the oceans to generate energy, how can you be looking at solar energies differently, how can you be using deserts in new ways. And with the young people having the brains that can just open themselves up to anything, we get much more exciting ideas coming through.
DM: Massively so, and also we can, by working with contemporary industry as we have done with Rolls Royce at the moment with the launch of their new aerospace engine, which is the most efficient aerospace engine on the market at the minute, so we can set what Hannah was just talking about in the context of what contemporary industry is doing. And actually a lot of the ideas that are coming through from these younger people are light-years ahead of where industry is at, because they’re not bound by the same controls, they’re not thinking in terms of resources, they’re not thinking in terms of money and materials, they’re just thinking of the ideas. They’re trying to get to the solutions and asking the questions, but we can provide the context so they can think of this really great idea, like the one that came out of last year that industry has to sit up and take note of what’s happening, it has to start thinking about this. And it’s empowering for them to see that their ideas are as current as what’s happening in industry at the moment, so I see our role there as well.
I think I mentioned this earlier it’s all going to be about sustainability. I’m big in my curatorial practice on getting things working. I think that so much value can be added to something’s interpretation by it working in front of you. Now these renewable energies that we’re discussing are likely to be the saviour of the fuels that I will still need to run the objects in the collection which will always depend on fossil fuels, they just will, it’s how they’re designed and to compromise interpretation of an object, to power it through a different means … so I see my practice being finding alternative means of powering other things in the collection and how the museum itself is powered. So for example, we’re sitting in a creative suite right now, how we can generate electricity to actually start powering these machines, can we think about this, can we take our reference from the collections, from the heritage of the city, from what’s happening? But in doing so and finding renewable solutions to these problems it will be the saviour of those machines, those fossils which depend on fossil fuels themselves.
HF: I think for us, it’s about ensuring we’re relevant and in terms of if we are going to be this place in which those conversations can happen, then we need to know what those conversations are that are happening in an industrial setting, in a scientific setting, and that’s not usually the case when you’re in your own space, just doing what you do nicely and ticking along and the world moves on past you. So for us it’s about ensuring that we are as up-to-date as we possibly can be and then making sure that we are as responsive to the changes that happen in science, in technology, in understanding how climate change is impacting on the world and driving that through a programme so that that’s a public conversation.
DM: I think it’s fair to say also not just responding and things like the Art Science Prize put us at the fore, we’re leading, and it would be a nice change actually for museums to lead the way for industry, rather than industries responding…
HF: I think there’s going to be a greater understanding of everything, I think already there’s a massive shift happened in terms of people’s understanding of the impact of the Industrial Revolution, for example, that we are here saying this was an amazing thing and look how Derby was part of leading that, but look actually what the impact of that has been. So I think there’s going to be a big shift in understanding and more knowledge about what that impact is. I think the world is going to demonstrate that as well through the things that are currently happening that we’re seeing more of or we’re much more aware of because of things like the internet and technology, being able to have instant communications globally, I think will only increase that knowledge and the mapping of how the climate is actually changing.
DM: Massively, yeah. I think locally as well you can use those sort of technologies so if there’s going to be flooding around here it’s going to start up the valley, we can now have that early warning system. I think that’s how it’s going to affect us primarily, I think the climate thing locally is we are on the banks of the Derwent and that water level is likely only to go one way. And that’s a big challenge for us, because our very life blood is being able to get down onto this ground floor, because if you can’t go down to the ground floor of this museum, you can’t get onto the top three floors either. So we’re going to have to start thinking about mitigating those risks and also finding responses to them, because if it turned out an inevitability, we’re going to have to be one step ahead of that. But it is those channels of communication that Hannah was just talking about which will give us those early warnings and allow us to be proactive rather than reactive in what we do about it.
HF: I think there is some stuff as well that we’re just going to have to accept, that we might want to conserve and protect this building, but actually there’s a point where that’s just not possible and we’re going to have to just accept that that isn’t possible and then problem-solve. Then what are we going to do about that and how can we innovate out of that problem to do something that really does what the site was originally planned for, which was to utilise that energy, utilise that system that’s in place and make it work for us, to become much more sustainable? I think the building’s sustainability is a big thing for us across all three sites that we have because we are dealing with old buildings, so how can we make sure that we’re using the latest methods and technologies and then testing some of those too and innovating out of that, because we have to, we just have to, there’s no choice.
DM: I think both actually, I’m incredibly optimistic about man’s ability to respond to these sorts of challenges, I’m incredibly optimistic about our local ability to respond. I think building on what Hannah was just saying we will survive whatever happens, if something’s inevitable we’ll find a way round it, we’ll make it work for us, we have to, it’s the only way we can survive, but I think that’s a global picture. I think you’ll see incredible things coming out of climate change challenges, incredible scientific minds working on great ideas. But I’m pessimistic because ultimately it’s always reactive and that’s man’s biggest problem is we’re always reactive; we’re reacting to what’s happening, we’re not tackling the problem, we’re tackling what’s actually happening as a result of that, we’re trying to find cures instead of preventions and I just think there’s an inherent problem there. I think if we applied ourselves as much as we do to finding solutions to these problems after they’ve happened, instead of just finding out why they’re happening, let’s tackle that, that’s what needs to change. So I’m pessimistic about industry and manufacturing necessarily making great leaps forward that are going to affect any sort of great climate change really, but I’m incredibly optimistic about man’s ability to respond to that.
HF: I think again I’m going to sit on the fence a little bit on this one, like Daniel just has!
DM: Thank you.
HF: But I know exactly what you mean and I feel the same, I think we have to be pessimistic in the sense that we have to be and it’s almost… pessimistic is the wrong word because it’s about being realistic. We need to wake up and be realistic about the state of the world and the way things are changing and wake up to the fact that this is true, this is real and do some proper accepting of that and then make some decisions about policy making. Rather than just talking about it and, ‘What if?’ and setting targets, let’s do it and I want that pessimism that I currently feel about whether that’s actually going to happen and that almost hopelessness that you tend to feel as an individual, because you think, ‘What could I possibly do?’ because it is too big and I have children and my children are going to have children and what am I leaving them in this world? But I’m optimistic about the fact that we have amazing opportunities as cultural organisations to have a bigger voice and to stimulate some of these conversations, because we can be quite safe in doing that, does that make sense? So because we’re neutral, we’re actually asking questions quite openly to the public and we can do that quite openly to the public in order to encourage people to make a shift in their, ‘Heads down, it’s not happening to us,’ feeling. But I think we have to be optimistic, you have to, because that’s our natural disposition and you have to be optimistic about we can challenge this as long as we are real about it. So in terms of thinking about where we are as an organisation and how museums are a safe space for conversations around climate change, etc., to happen, I think that that’s a unique position that cultural organisations, broader just simply than museums, but we’re a museum so we’re going to talk about that perspective.
Museums have always been places of encounter and that is absolutely how we see ourselves, as places of encounters and those encounters can be with each other, so they can be social encounters, they can be about conversation and discussions, but they can also be encounters with where things have proved difficult in the past and then how we overcame those difficulties, through to where things might be going that are difficult for the future and then how are we thinking about those things? And because they’re trusted organisations, because we’re not taking a strong position, we’re not saying, ‘This is right, this is wrong,’ we’re saying, ‘Here’s something to discuss, we think it’s something that you think also is important to discuss, therefore let’s have that conversation, ’ we can present quite challenging statistics and perspectives in those spaces and that’s actually kind of accepted by the public more readily than if government was doing that or if schools were doing that even.
With us in Derby I think that’s even more important, because in the 18th century Enlightenment, that is exactly what was happening here in the Midlands and we made massive shifts in our understanding of the world around us, maybe not necessarily the right ones, we didn’t get it right all the time, there was a feeling that we could conquer the natural world, etc., but there was a shift and that came through safe spaces to have those challenging discussions. So I think that’s what I refer to in terms of us thinking about museums as being those places and I think we have a responsibility, therefore, because we’re considered to be safe and trusted by the public to do that, to make those challenges. And things like the Art Sense Prize Programme give us the perfect opportunity to do that, because it’s extracurricular in some senses although we deliver it within the school time, it allows schools to take risks where their current pressures in education, the things that they want to do for outcomes as perceived by the State system, etc., doesn’t allow for some of those things to happen because they’ve got so much of that outcome delivered and driven processes, that us as an organisation and the programme we’re part of enables us to sit that alongside those curriculum areas and then start to actually feed that into those programmes of learning and give teachers and schools the ability to take some risks with those conversations because they’ve been given permission to in a sense by being part of the bigger conversation and not feeling scared about it.
DM: Yeah, and I think being that safe place for enquiry, we’re an advantage in a number of other ways as well, so here let’s not forget that some of the collections pre-date the use of fossil fuels. So you could have an NGO working for years and they could pump millions and millions of pounds into new ideas, innovative ideas and you could have, ‘This is your deadline, by here you need a new idea.’ Well, we don’t present that, you can come as often as you want, it’s free, come, look at the collections, think, if we can prompt those questions, they can look for solutions. Something may be sparked by an object in the collection, were you think, ‘This came from the 16th century, the 17th century, I can see a solution, we can modernise this, I can innovate from that previous idea, you can have this.’ And I think we can be that body as well.
HF: Yeah, I guess to conclude you should see museums as an open source. I think our cause as an organisation is to embrace the word museum because we are museums, but what we’re doing and the way that we’ve framed our course is to expand perspectives of what a museum is and can be and I think that pretty much sums up our approach, is that there’s been over the last half century, a much more defined understanding of what people thought museums were by museums themselves actually. And I’m referring back to an earlier point Daniel made about that becoming very curatorial-led and very specialist approached thinking, which is not to say that that’s not important because we need those skills and expertise, but they became quite narrow in the way that they were then engaging and enabling our visitors and audiences to have much more open conversations, because they were perceived as the experts. And I think the shift that we’re having within our organisation and generally within museums is seeing museums again as what they were originally, which was places to discover and explore, ask questions, find things. You had no idea what that was and then someone else might not also in the museum, might not know what that is, but to discover together. And that approach is where we are going with that, is they are alternative learning spaces to schools, they are alternative spaces of social encounters, they are alternative places to ask questions, big questions, to feel good, to have fun, to be playful, but to also design for the future. And that is the shift that we’ve made, we’re not just talking about the past or the present, how does all of that stuff lead into where we’re going?
And we’re part of the network of our city, so we have to be something that we know and understand our audiences and our partners in the city and our stakeholders, we need to be something that they need and so the only way we’re going to be able to do that for our own resilience and our own relevance, otherwise if nobody’s visiting, why are we here? And it gets us excited too about what the possibilities might be by working and experimenting and taking experimental approaches to how we programme and develop partnerships, etc., so it’s kind of a cross sector, definitely, it’s really important how we’ve working those industries like Rolls Royce, who may not have expected that they would have a relationship and a partnership with museums, but definitely do now, because we are relevant to them, but also we can get ourselves in the position where we can ask challenging questions of industries about where they’re going.
I think it’s why first because why is to understand why you’re doing something and it doesn’t have to be the same at the end of a project to what you thought at the beginning, but it’s about why is it important that I’m working in this organisation for me personally, what is it that I feel that I’m going to get from this and why is that important to me, through to why would Rolls Royce want to work on a project that has heritage at its heart or why have Rolls Royce got challenges in engaging and recruiting young people in the city through into their industries? So the why is to understand it first and the how is the methodology, in a sense, as to how we start to address the why. And how is through things like human-centred design and design thinking processes and co-producing, that’s just the how, because that’s how we work. And we work by experimenting, we work by prototyping, we work in partnership, we work to discover, etc., but we have to keep coming back to the why are we doing it? And if there isn’t a question or you can’t define what that question is, that could be redefined all the way along that process, because you find new reasons all the time. ‘Oh, wow, we didn’t realise that there was young people in Derby who are struggling to get into education or training because they’ve not got any life/work experience.’ And so through this process we found that that’s a real why they would get involved with doing this, because we’ve then been able to tailor and target that particular programme for their needs. So you can redefine it all the way along and it’s much stronger for it, definitely.
[End of Interview]
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