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Derby Museums: The art of collecting

PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 February 2017

Derby porcelain dish, painted by John Brewer showing the hunting of Polar Bear in the Arctic, c.1800 Photo: Derby Museums

Derby porcelain dish, painted by John Brewer showing the hunting of Polar Bear in the Arctic, c.1800 Photo: Derby Museums

derby museums

Jonathan Wallis, Head of Museums at Derby Museums, explores the art of collecting

The inscription on the 19th century eight section telescope made by David of Derby Photo: Derby MuseumsThe inscription on the 19th century eight section telescope made by David of Derby Photo: Derby Museums

Many of us have over the years formed our own collections. These personal collections can be diverse and very individual. Many people will collect stamps, coins, porcelain, autographs or memorabilia of various types, but individual collectors can put their own spin on the collection. This is where we see the very specialist collections of stamps with sheep on, matchboxes depicting ships, Derby porcelain decorated by a particular painter or any combination of things that you can think of. Many of us who work in museums start from the background of personal collecting. I used to collect all sorts of things from business cards and postcards to stamps and coins.

As collectors we also have our own different thoughts on how we record the background information about the objects that we collect. For some of us it is this information that makes it important. Who made something, used it or where precisely it came from might be reasons why something is important to us.

For those of us who work in museums and the heritage sector we have the responsibility to care for and develop collections for institutions that will hopefully outlive us. These are collections that meet the needs of that museum and the communities that it serves. For some this is easy: I’m thinking of some of the more specialist museums that have quite a restricted area of collecting. In my spare time I am one of the board members of the Charles Dickens Museum in London, based in the house that is the last remaining London home of the great novelist. The collections development policy of this organisation is relatively narrow, as they collect items that relate to the life and works of one of Britain’s most famous authors. There are of course still some grey areas that relate to modern adaptations of his work or the production of collectables relating to the stories or characters in the novels. Should the museum collect Mr Pickwick teapots made in the 1930s for example?

Museums like Derby Museum and Art Gallery, The Silk Mill and Pickford’s House have an added layer of complexity when the purpose of the museum is varied and has changed in the 140 or so years that the museum has existed. When the museum opened it was about broadening the minds of Derby’s working people. This had the benefit of keeping them out of trouble in their new leisure time and of making them more useful in work as they became more educated. This meant that the museum collected things from all over the world, including clubs from the Pacific Islands, pots from South America, flint tools from Africa, Dutch landscape paintings, Greek pots and almost anything that you can mention! Many of these items had the added benefit of showing the people of Derby the supremacy of the British Empire and how civilised Victorian society was when compared to other parts of the world.

Silver brandy pan formerly belonging to Sir Richard Arkwright, made by Henry Chawner in 1787 Photo: derby MuseumsSilver brandy pan formerly belonging to Sir Richard Arkwright, made by Henry Chawner in 1787 Photo: derby Museums

Over the years the Derby Museums’ collecting policy has changed depending on the interests and whims of various curators and councillors, government policy and the national curriculum as well as the public’s desire to preserve the memory of the place where they live as it rapidly changes.

Today museums are again at a point where they need to consider their purpose and look at their current collections to see what they should collect. For Derby this means a reassessment of who is the audience and who composes the community that the museum serves. Derby’s population has changed since the museum opened in 1879 and if the museum collections are to be representative of these changes the museum needs to consider the stories held in the objects that are currently in the museum and about what is collected in the future.

As some of those objects and their stories are exposed I see a number of differing threads that make up Derby’s story. As a simple list it would look like this:

Diversity, since the earliest times, Derby’s communities and industries have benefited from an influx of people from other places who have come to live here and have often come to call Derby their home.

19th century eight section telescope made by David of Derby Photo: Derby Museums19th century eight section telescope made by David of Derby Photo: Derby Museums

Curiosity, the people of Derby (like people from many other places) have been curious about the world in which they have lived. This has resulted in lots of interesting studies and subsequent discoveries.

Creativity, using what they have discovered and learned from those people who have come to work here. Derby people (many of them recently arrived themselves) have invented, created and manufactured new things, some of which have changed the world.

I for one am unsure that we are telling this story. The Silk Mill, as Derby’s Museum of Making that is currently being created, will go some way towards beginning to tell this story. That project is being developed with Derby people, and they often know more than museum staff and other ‘experts’ do. Co-producing displays is relatively new and has been pioneered at Derby Museums. I look forward to developing what we have learned on projects like The Silk Mill redevelopment and the ‘notice nature feel joy’ gallery project in working with people to understand Derby’s stories, and developing the way we unlock the stories behind Derby’s civic collections.

You can be part of The Silk Mill project now. Go to to find out how. Look out for details of how Derby Museums will further work with Derby’s communities to develop the collection to be representative of everyone.


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