In Conversation with Tony Butler
Tony Butler is the Executive Director of Derby Museums Trust and the founder of the Happy Museum Project. MuseumNext’s Jim Richardson caught up with him to talk about running a museum in post-brexit Britain.
Jim Richardson: Tell us about Derby, the city where your museums are situated.
Tony Butler: Derby is a town of about 270,000 people, in the middle of England.
It’s an industrial city with a substantial manufacturing base. Companies like Rolls Royce, Toyota and Bombardier make everything from jet engines to trains here.
That industrial spark came from the building of Derby Silk Mill built in 1721, recognised to be the world’s first factory.
Derby Silk Mill is one of the three museums we run as Derby Museums. By 2019 it will be completely refurbished as the UK’s first museum of making, which we’ll use to chart 300 years of making in the city, from decorative art to major industries, but also the kind of social organisations and social movements that came with industrial society.
We run two other museums. Pickford’s House, a beautiful Georgian townhouse where we tell the story of the social history of the city and Derby Museum and Art Gallery, a traditional universal museum with collections of art, decorative art, natural science, archaeology and miscellaneous.
The pièce de résistance of our collection is work by Joseph Wright of Derby. He was one of the best known British 18th Century painters and it’s been designated as a collection of outstanding national significance by the Arts Council England.
Wright’s work symbolises the approach to art and science that Derby Museum tries to put forward. Wright is most familiar for his work around the growth of early industry and science and technology, which is the core of the story we’re trying to tell across our three sites.
Jim: With the redevelopment that’s happening at Derby Silk Mill, you’ve taken a different approach to most museums?
Tony Butler: Our vision is to create a museum of making, which will tell the industrial and social history story of Derby, because making and industry is absolutely the soul of the city.
We’re building this museum in a very different way by embedding participation in everything we do. We encourage local people to come in, work with our collections and tease out stories from them, which will then end up in our displays.
We’re also asking them to pick up objects and display them in a way that they feel is interesting. For example the Art of Artefact exhibit encourages people to order and display object any way they choose. Everybody displays these objects differently, either through their use, or through where they were made or the texture or the materials or even their colour.
It’s been really helpful for us to see the different interests and motivations of the public and how they look at objects, which then feeds into the broader narrative of the museum.
The driving force behind this approach is Hannah Fox, the project director of the Silk Mill redevelopment.
Jim: It sounds like a risky way of working, what do you think are the pluses and minuses of rebuilding the museum that way?
Tony Butler: Fear of the unknown is a negative but its also liberating. Hannah’s mantra has been “feel the fear and do it anyway” You don’t know where a participatory process is going to take you and whether you’re capable of being able to do it.
The big plus is that we’ll end up with something that’s absolutely within the worldview of local people, because they would have made it.
We’re teasing out stories that would probably otherwise would never have been brought to life or been revealed. We’re getting more people involved in the science of the museum and they’re getting much closer to the collections.
They’ll have a much better understanding of the nature of the material, why cultural heritage is important to local pride and the telling of the story of the place,.
What’s able to facilitate this is the fact that we’ve got a team of really open-minded people.
Jim: And the name ‘Museum of Making’, is really open and something that is different from a traditional museum of industry or engineering?
Tony Butler: Yes. We’re conscious of using the word making, because, obviously, it’s a very good verb. Anyone can make something, it’s a much more inclusive way of talking about industry. We’re really clear about the process of making being just as important as the end product.
The word ‘maker’ also links us to the Maker Movement, which is very current. We hold Derby Mini Maker Faire every year and we get around 3,000 people attending these events.
Last year we had 90-odd stalls of makers, people working from textiles to electronics to woodworking. It’s a really great way of engaging the public.
The other thing this has done is bring in major industry partners. So, Rolls Royce participated last year, and some of their apprentices made mini rocket propelled cars with the public.
It’s a great way for these companies to have a connection with culture and with the makers. And often they are one and the same. Many engineers and technicians who have drifted away from the production line have been able to get back to making due to groups like Derby Makers and the Silk Mill.
Jim: Yes, and showing that industry is still exists in the UK.
Tony Butler: Absolutely. We still make things in Derby, for example 12,000 people are employed at Rolls Royce making jet engines. The city promotes itself as the UK’s number one high-tech city. There are more people involved in high-tech jobs here than there are in Cambridge.
Jim: When you were the Director of the Museum of East Anglian Life, you were working with the idea of a museum as a social enterprise. Is that something you’ve brought to Derby Museums?
Tony Butler: Yes. I think a social enterprise is somewhere that is opportunistic, business minded, ready to take risks, ready to think commercially, but has a profound sense of social purpose.
When I was running the Museum of East Anglian Life, we were developing a whole range of skills training programmes and therapeutic programmes, which we were paid to do by agencies or by individuals.
We were able to scale up that business to generate a healthy income and at its high point, generating almost 45% of our income from activities that could be seen as a social enterprise service, service-based activities.
That was on an 80-acre site with land, animals and a farm. Here, we’re in a much more traditional museum setting, but it doesn’t stop us delivering programmes that will have an important social impact on people.
Yesterday we presented certificates to a group of 14 year olds who had been identified as at risk of exclusion from school, because they’re not engaging with classes or their attendance was bad and so they’re involved in a project to encourage them to get interested in engineering.
They work with the historic collections, understood the various processes in making some of the material, going back 100 years. We work with a firm called Pentaxia who make components for Formula One cars, based in the city. So they spent time in that factory talking to engineers and they came back to the museum to make casts of screwdrivers.
Built alongside this was, interview practice, encouraging them to build up a portfolio, thinking about how they need to present themselves for when they get their first job.
This was a fairly low-key project, which took 12 young people through, but the transformation of those young people during the 3 months that they were with us was absolutely palpable.
One lad, a sullen, sulky early teenager, lacked confidence, wouldn’t engage with new teachers and we had real trouble teasing him out. Yesterday, at the awards ceremony, he got up and spent 10 minutes explaining to 40 people what he’d done during his time here.
So, I think that was a great example of how the museum can have a huge social impact and change people’s lives and there’s countless examples of us working with marginalised groups, people who have traditionally not participated in cultural or social activity in the city and that’s absolutely the purpose of the museum, as much as it is to preserve local heritage and help the general population learn about local heritage.
Jim: I think there’ll be lots of Museum Directors who would say that with funding so tight, just running the core service is hard enough. Is having a social impact beyond that, asking too much?
Tony Butler: I wouldn’t distinguish between core services, and social impact, we are social organisations.
This organisation has existed since the mid-1800s. The museum was built via a mixture of public subscription and philanthropy, primarily to educate working people.
There’s this lovely quote in the Derby Telegraph, going back to the opening of the museum. The founding fathers of the museum said, “The museum should not be the preserve of exquisites.”
So, even in the 19th Century, there was a feeling that these institutions have a social purpose and nothing has changed in my view and we should be thinking about how we use all the assets within the organisation, be they cultural, be they technical, be they human to deliver social impact.
Jim: Which links with the Happy Museum project?
Tony Butler: Yes. Back in 2011, I founded the Happy Museum project and this is now seen as a kind of learning and development framework to encourage museums to have the greatest social and environmental impact that they can in their communities.
I see the environment, individual and communal wellbeing as being two sides of the same coin. So, if we work towards greater environmental quality, we approach climate change in a proactive way, you’re more likely to create a more equitable and fair society.
The Happy Museum project produced a whole range of resources and provocations to organisations and as a consequence we ended up supporting financially about 22 organisations in the UK to deliver projects that would support some of that thinking.
For example we funded a project in West Wales, in the Ceredigion Museum, where kids who have left school with no qualifications were inducted into the use of old, traditional tools, used in agriculture and they participated in a training programme to learn how to make these tools.
These tools were made in a bespoke way and sold to the public and a company was set up whereby members of the public could buy these nicely designed tools. The young people gained skills in making them and the income came back to them. This was all inspired by the museum’s collections.
We funded a project in Lambeth in London at the Garden Museum, looking at the ethics of the cut flower trade. They created a winter cutting garden, in the face of the importation of flowers grown in hothouses in Holland and Africa in a fairly environmentally unsustainable way, when you could perfectly well grow your own flowers in wintertime for sale.
This flower garden was jointly run by the museum and a women’s group from the Heygate Estate, a big social housing project to the south of the museum.
So, there’s a whole range of projects that we’ve funded and you can check all of them out on the Happy Museum website.
All of the projects had an environmental bias and a social impact. I’m really keen on us finding different ways of being able to measure social impact.
We carried out a big social return on investment study of the social impact of a learning programme, when I was working at the Museum of East Anglian Life and that project looked at work with long-term unemployed people, people who were mental health service users and learning disabled adults.
We worked out that for every £1.00 invested, you got £4.00 of social value back and that’s measured on the ability for people, via the programme, to live more independently, to have better relationships with their families, to use their GPs less, some got jobs and were therefore not on benefits.
So there is an econometric way to measure social impact as well. We know that our museums have a really profound effect on people and there are countless examples of us finding great testimony and lovely stories of how museums change people’s lives, but there’s also now an ability to measure that in a quantitative way to say that it is worth investing in our organisation, because the benefits you gain for it far outweigh them.
Jim : Like many areas of the UK, Derby was one of the places that voted for Brexit and it’s an area that has 20% of the population from ethnic minorities. So, in terms of social impact, what role do you think the museum can play in building bridges between communities?
Tony Butler : I think the Brexit vote laid bare a whole range of divisions within not just this community, but in the country and some of them were related to immigration, but not all.
Immigration was a cipher for all the other unspoken problems in the country, mostly to do with inequality and inequality of income and inequality of access to good schools or good services. The fear of immigration was the manifestation of broader inequalities.
The museum’s role is not to ignore immigration, but the big issue is, how can it work to bring communities together and to explore issues around inequality.
If you look at our visitor patterns, we know that 20% of the population here self-identifies as Non-White-British, 5% of our visitors come from that community.
So, we need to be much more proactive with those communities. That said, we have a higher than average visitor profile of people on low incomes, because we’re free and we’re in the middle of the city.
Museums like ours are civic institutions, they’re freely accessible. I think they are a safe space for difficult conversations. There’s a challenge for museums in the future to think about how they use their collections to stimulate conversations between communities and between individuals.
One project that we’re hoping to work on funding, permitting, is to relook at our world collection. We’ve got material from all over the world that was gathered in the 19th Century. So, we’ve got Palaeolithic material from Somalia, we’ve got collections from Oceania, from Polynesia and New Zealand and Australia and there’s material from West Africa, all brought over during the Colonial period, either by fair means or foul.
It’s a great way for us, to begin a conversation with our diverse communities about what makes our city the place it is, teasing out the imperial legacy.
Much of the illusions that were drawn on during the Brexit campaign were around our place in the world, whether Great Britain can still be great and a lot of that is coloured by our Colonial past.
I think we have an opportunity, not just here, but museums up and down the country, to use our collections for people now to really discover their place in the world, it’s our mission. So, I think our museums can be a bridge for some difficult discussions.
I think in many areas there’s a fair amount of insecurity, worry, about what the future’s going to bring, stable organisations like museums can be that kind of anchor in communities to explore those conversations without prejudice.
The public feel that museums are, open, safe, democratic spaces and there’s a huge amount of capital to make those conversations happen.