The exhibition shows buildings in Wirksworth have been regenerated over 10 years. Photo © Salma Conway / Culture 24
Coinciding with the town's annual well dressing weekend, Wirksworth Heritage Centre put on a special exhibition from Saturday May 24 – Monday May 26 2008 to tell the story of the Derbyshire lead mining town's dramatic regeneration.
The Story of Wirksworth showed in pictures how the 1978 Wirksworth Project, funded by the National Civic Trust, transformed the town in ten years.
Thirty years ago, Wirksworth was a town in tatters. Years of neglect had left crumbling buildings, pothole covered pavements and widespread dust damage from blasting in the local quarry.
Before and after pictures of buildings and town spaces showed the dramatic impact that was made by the regeneration initiative.
Artist Sally Jane Thompson with her work. © Salma Conway / Culture 24
Museum trustee Marian Vaughan said that the Wirksworth project, which scooped the Europa Nostra prize for architectural regeneration in 1984, was instrumental in turning the town around and restoring its original charm. In fact, the heritage centre itself was originally established in 1984 to interpret the work of this project.
“Since it has been 30 years since the beginning of the regeneration, we thought that this would be a good anniversary to celebrate, especially for Museums and Galleries Month,” Mrs Vaughan added.
The early section of the exhibition displayed black and white photographs of the town's decrepit state in the late 1970s, taken by Guardian photographers Denis Thorpe and Don McPhee.
Images by these photographers throughout the 1980s showed how Wirksworth became cocooned in a chrysalis of scaffolding, while later, colour photographs from Heritage Centre archives illustrated its resplendent emergence – transformed after 10 years of regeneration.
A contemporary selection of photographs by Canadian artist Sally Jane Thompson took a more intimate look at the town as it is today. She focused not just on the picturesque nature of its restored elements but also on its aging parts and peeling walls. These later pictures seemed to demonstrate that while there has been a 20 year gap since restoration work ended, a slight amount of deterioration provides an element of nostalgic charm.
A Georgian coat recently donated by the Gell family of Hopton Hall. Photo © Salma Conway / Culture 24
Miss Thompson, an MA Fine Art student from Derby University, said that she had enjoyed taking a close portrait of a town that is full of character.
“Wirksworth is interesting for me as there's nothing like it in Canada. It's so old it has a really strange layout – there are lots of alleys all over the place. Just walking around with the camera makes you take a closer look at things and it's really interesting.”
She added: “I think it's quite nice that I'm not from Wirksworth, as capturing the well known buildings doesn't matter to me so much. I can come at it with a fresh eye.”
Visitor Beth Taylor (61) from Burton on Trent said she used to live near Wirksworth and witnessed much of the town's transformation. She added: “I think these pictures are really interesting, I like them very much. You get to see different aspects of the town that you wouldn't necessarily notice.”
The streets of Wirksworth were buzzing during the bank holiday weekend. © Photo Salma Conway / 24 Hour Museum
After the weekend, a number of the photographs from this exhibition are set to be moved into the permanent collection at the Heritage Centre. Museum staff also took the opportunity to preview another forthcoming addition to the collection – a selection of Georgian and Victorian coats, which have been donated by the Gell family of Hopton Hall.
Meanwhile, the streets of Wirksworth were buzzing with excitement as crowds gathered to partake in Well Dressing Weekend activities. On Monday, a Caribbean themed procession marched through the town – another positive image to add to the story of a town no longer in tatters.
Salma Conway is one of our three Renaissance East Midlands arts writers, reporting on MGM 2008 events all over the region for the whole month of May. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.