What is the purpose of a public museum? Derby Museum could have the answer

By Jonathan Wallis | 29 May 2015

As Derby Museum's Common Treasury exhibition asks questions of the purpose of a public museum, the City's Head of Museums ponders how the past can inform decisions about collecting material culture for the future

a painting of a boy and girl playing with toy yachts in a rock pool as a yacht sails by in the distance
I Saw Three Ships, Maxwell Ashby Armfield, 1930© Derby Museums Trust
Like many municipal museums, Derby Museums is home to an extraordinarily rich and diverse collection, gathered across the course of almost 150 years, and now numbering over 100,000.

In many cases these collections have grown through the generosity of the people of Derby. In this exhibition, Common Treasury, Derby Museums explores the growth of the collection that it holds, alongside changing ideas about its purpose and its place within the city.

The roots of the present museum and art gallery and its collection can be traced back to the early 19th century and the museums of private collectors or learned societies, such as the Derby Town and County Museum.

But it was not until 1869, following a national movement in favour of free museums and libraries, that the rump of these collections were united and offered as a gift to the town. Funded by local brewer, Michael Thomas Bass, the new dedicated museum and library was finally unveiled on 28th June 1879 amidst great fanfare and day-long celebrations across Derby.

Natural history specimens and objects from different world cultures made up much of the museums’ early collection, some of which are shown along side artwork from the art gallery, which opened in 1882.

a photo of a carved stone hieroglyphs on it
Brick celebrating the construction of a building in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar the second in 605 - 562 BC© Derby Museums Trust
Other items dating from this period include the museums’ much-loved Egyptian mummies and its first works of art donated by local philanthropist and collector, Joseph Strutt.

Like a number of his wealthy fellow Victorians, including Bass, Strutt believed that access to diverse culture and open public spaces was important to improving the lives and behaviour of the working classes.

Attitudes have since changed, but educating and inspiring visitors remains central to Derby Museums’ aims. Derby Museums want to make the city’s collection accessible to everyone, exhibiting it in ways that delight, engage, and inspire.

Collections should be able to inspire people’s heads, hearts and hands to be curious and to unlock their creativity.

In this exhibition we see Egyptian artefacts were excavated and donated to the museum in 1904 by the Beni Hasan Excavation Committee funded by the Egyptian Exploration Society, as well as finds from the explorer and flint collector Heyward Walter Seton-Karr.

Three of the flints discovered by Seton-Karr and displayed here are from the group of flints that he collected in Somalia that changed the way that we think about the development of the human race.

a painting of an industrial mill scene with women and children playing in a street
Laurence Stephen Lowry, Houses near a Mill, 1942© Derby Museums Trust
Displayed along side these important archaeological finds we see artwork by world-renowned artists with little or no relevance to the city. Today many of these items would not fall within the present collecting policy of the museum but were collected in the past with the purpose of broadening the horizons of the working people of Derby.

Portraits of the Hurts by Joseph Wright of Derby show Derbyshire landowners who used the mineral assets on their land to build their fortune, and are obvious recent museum acquisitions. They sit next what many would seen as anomalies under todays collecting policies.

Recently even the museum’s Laurence Stephen Lowry painting, Houses Near a Mill, has stimulated debate regarding its relevance to Derby, even though the artist has good links to the County. There are many other paintings of note in this exhibition that could raise as many or even more questions.

a painting of a man in a frock coat and tricorn hat holding back a North American Indian as he tries to attack a prone man in a white frock coat
Benjamin West, General Johnson Saving a Wounded French Officer from a North American Indian c.1768 © Derby Museums Trust
The Benjamin West portrait of General Johnson, the Artist’s Model by William Powell Frith, an etching by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and works by Arthur Rackham or Cecil Collins, all have little to do with Derby Museum’s current collecting policy. They have much to do with the way that the museum tries to use its collections to inspire the communities that it serves.

Should Derby people be denied the ability to see great art in their local museum because they have a collecting policy that means that they can only preserve things that relate to Derby’s past?

This exhibition raises questions of the future of museum collecting in general as well as the purpose of museums in the future. It is the rediscovery of the original purpose of Derby Museum and Art Gallery alongside a review of the needs of Derby’s communities today that has led to this exhibition.

In an age of austerity, the future of the freely accessible public space of the museum, and its collection may be uncertain. Is it a luxury to have a museum that records the history of a place for future generations?

If that museum inspired the population of that place to enable them to increase the community, prosperity and vitality of the place that they lived, would that make a good investment? 

Join the debate by visiting the exhibition and taking part in one of our exhibition activities, or by joining the conversation on Twitter @derbymuseums #CommonTreasury

  • Jonathan Wallis is Head of Museums & Museum and Art Gallery Development at Derby Museums Trust. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMuseum
  • Common Treasury runs at Derby Museum and Art Gallery until February 21, 2016.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

a photo of a sculptured head of a man
Jacob Epstein, Jawaharlal Nehru bust© Derby Museums Trust
a painting of Christ in a red robe being transported on the back of a wagon
Luca Giordano, Christ Led to Calvary, 1660 - 1705© Derby Museums Trust
a painting of a woman in Victorian ruffles and hat posing for a male artist at his easel
William Powell Frith, The Artist's Model 1856© Derby Museums Trust

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