Imagine a historic site. It has an incredible story. But not enough people care about it anymore, and the museum is fading into disrepair. It is losing funding, attention, and relevance.
What do you do?
Yesterday, I learned about the Silk Mill, a British historic site that is going through a dramatic community-driven reinvention. The Silk Mill is part of the Derby Museums, a public institution of art, history, and natural history. The Mill itself claims fame as the world's oldest factory, a UNESCO world heritage site, and a birthplace of mechanized silk production.
Many people would look at the world's oldest mechanized silk mill and say that the core content of the museum is silk. Or silk production. Or factory life in the 1700s. The Derby Silk Mill folks have a different tack: they define the Silk Mill as being about making.
In the fall of 2013, they launched Re:Make, an ambitious project to redevelop the museum, live, on the floor, with a mix of staff, guest artists, and community members. They see this as directly related to the founding principles of the Mill as a place of experimentation, design, creating, and making. They see it as the future of their museum. And perhaps most ambitiously, they see it as a community-based project.
This means that not only have they turned their museum into an experimental project space, they have opened that space explicitly and intentionally to community co-production. They invite people to participate: in design, prototyping, artifact interpretation, collections preparation, audience development.
They don't just invite participation by opening the doors. They host public co-making events, invite groups to book workshops directly, engage on twitter and tumblr, and encourage drop-in participation. It's clear from the diversity of activities, the professionalism of the scaffolding, and the forms of access that they are serious about inviting meaningful participation in the Re:Make project.
Watch the video at the top of this post, and you'll see the requisite happy people of diverse backgrounds with power tools and post-its. But you'll also hear participants saying things that speak to the intentionality of this process. Things like:
"I was curious about how it would happen. And then I thought, ok, it does seem serious. They do know what they are talking about."or
"I've never had anything quite like it... it's carried on. Everyone in the community helping out. I love the way they've stuck to their guns and said, guys, keep going."These participants are engaged because they've been invited not just to participate once but to be part of something substantive and comprehensive. A strong participatory process is not a loosey-goosey, open the doors and do whatever strategy. It's serious. These guys needed to see that the museum was serious--putting resources, time, and real estate into the process. That investment by the institution helped them commit to making an investment of their own time and energy.
Staff members made some powerful statements as well. My favorite was this one:
"I'm the workshop supervisor, but the workshop belongs to everybody. It's like a swap. I'm a resource for the community, they're a resource for me, and the things we bought, in a public workshop, belongs to the public."This staff member sees community members as partners. Everyone has something they need. Everyone has something to give. It's not a question of the participatory process being unidirectional, something that we are doing for you the community. It's a shared space and process.
Kudos to the Silk Mill for doing the difficult, messy, resource-intensive work of making their participatory process both open and professional. Invested at all levels. It shines through even from across the pond.
And it leaves me with just one question. As I explore how the museum is growing with the community remaking it, I wonder: what will happen when they are done? Is this a participatory process to redevelop a museum, or can it be a participatory product: museum as making space?
Many projects have more energy in the making than in the completion. The people walking into the Silk Mill, being asked for their ideas and help, are living in an era of possibility and opportunity. As the museum project gets completed, the opportunities constrict. While it was amazing to get to make a robot, it may be less amazing to see that robot completed.
One of the things that struck me most about the Silk Mill was the positioning of Re:Make as a natural extension of its historic use as a factory. A factory never stops making things. Its work is never done. Is there a way that the Silk Mill could shift from a project of remaking to a site for continual making? It seems to me that that may be the truest to the original intent of the site--and the most compelling to the community now engaged.