Thursday, 23 April 2015

Necessity is the mother of interpretation

The gallery in Belper North Mill has been updated, thanks to a heritage lottery funded project. A series of small screens show films of processes and machinery, telling the story of the Mill and its industrial history in a very contemporary way. There's a heartbreaking piece of news film of the day the English Sewing Cotton Company closed, with interviews with some of the ladies who worked there. It's now 20 years since North Mill enthusiasts got together to preserve its heritage. Funding was scarce and displays were put together by volunteers with enthusiasm and their personal knowledge. Our Samuel Slater display is a good example. Jean Bellaby, one of the long term volunteers created it, putting Cindy, Ken and Barbie to good use.To some visitors it probably looks quirky and quaint but it tells an important story about the history of Samuel Slater, Belper and beyond. It's the story of the twin town links between Pawtucket, Rhode Island and Belper, and the establishment of cotton spinning in America, with all its implications. It also tells an important story of make do and mend, and the role of enthusiastic volunteers to share history and heritage, with no funds to speak of. Nowadays there are heritage consultants who specialise in interpretation in the museum sector. There is funding out there to make use of their skills, developing innovative and digital ways to share a story. Interactive online resources, user generated content, apps and android friendly formats. It's a long way from Ken and Barbie, even further from Samuel Slater. Thanks to the enthusiasm of the volunteers who were devoted to saving and sharing the story of the Derwent Valley Mills, they were eventually recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, not crumbling relics of a forgotten industrial past.

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