The Derby Museum Trust operates three public museums of art, history, and natural history in Derby, England: the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Pickford’s House, and Derby Silk Mill. The Silk Mill is the site of the world’s first factory and is located in a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the museums hold the finest collection of work by Joseph Wright of Derby, an 18th Century English painter whose work defined the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
The Enlightenment’s ethos of creativity and invention are central to Derby Museums, and the Museums’ adoption of a human-centered design methodology is a natural continuation of Enlightenment principles—thinking, exploring, experimenting, creating, and making.
Derby Museums reference the LUMA Institute’s definition of human-centered design as, “The discipline of generating solutions to problems and opportunities through the act of making ‘something new,’ driven by the needs, desires, and context of the users for whom we are making it.”
I spoke with Hannah Fox, Silk Mill Project Director, to learn more about the development of the Human-Centred Design Handbook. Following are excerpts from our conversation.
Q: Tell me about your background and how you got involved with Derby Museums.
I trained as a designer and digital photographer. I used to work in advertising, and then started to do freelance work for nonprofits and published a series of books about areas of Derby. I wanted to give alternative viewpoints and tell stories about the communities in these areas of the city. This then extended to working with organizations in developing ways of engaging their stakeholders actively in live projects that helped tell stories and give ownership over changes that might be underway.
The work was about co-producing and co-designing with communities, listening to and responding to collective needs. And pretty soon, I was doing human-centered design before I realized what it was!
Then I was asked by the then-head of Derby museums to chat about the Silk Mill. He’d seen some of my work, and the community-centered design approach is what interested him.
Q: Why do you think human-centered design is so important for museums?
Museums originally were places of wonder and exploration, but over the years, some museums lost their way. This really emerged over the last century because of didactic learning models and the notion of knowledge residing with “experts.”
But here in Derby, we can’t guarantee that that is enough to bring large numbers of visitors through our doors. We have to design stuff that is relevant to them and meets their needs.
Q: Tell me how the Derby Museums Human-Centred Design Handbook came about.
As I was working on the frameworks for the Re:Make the Museum project, I realized we needed our staff to feel that the human-centered design process was something they could own and apply in their own ways. (Re:Make the Museum is a project in which residents of the Derby community are invited to the Silk Mill to become citizen-curators and makers-in-residence, co-creating a new, experimental space using design-thinking approaches).
I was also struggling to communicate to the Heritage Lottery (a major funder of cultural heritage organizations in the United Kingdom) what we do (as part of a bid for additional funding for the Derby Silk Mill ). By creating a handbook, this was a way to communicate what we do.
To ask for 10 million pounds and say, “We can’t tell you what we are going to develop because we’re going to co-produce it with the community” is a tough ask! We needed something that gave them a sense of rigor. And weirdly, stuff on paper does that.
Q: How do you think the Design Handbook has been helpful for Derby Museums staff?
It has given them something to help with the often scary process of talking to and working with visitors and communities. It gives staff a framework, and hopefully takes them beyond the “Oh I’m not creative” attitude.
Originally, I wasn’t even going to make the handbook public. I was going to use it for staff training workshops. Now it’s been downloaded loads of times, and we’re revising it and putting in case studies.
I know that this (human-centered design) isn’t unique, but we’re in a sector that has rarely used it before.
Q: Can you give me an example of a specific project to which you have applied human-centered design?
We just completed a new gallery of objects from the natural history collection at Derby Museum called Notice Nature Feel Joy. To develop this new gallery in 10 months, we followed a human-centered design process that we tested out in the Re:Make project and then personalized to this project.
We started with a “How Might We” question centered around the Five Ways to Wellbeing. (The Five Ways to Wellbeing are a set of actions developed by the New Economics Foundation, the United Kingdom’s leading think tank promoting social, economic, and environmental justice. The Five Ways are: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, and Give. The Five Ways have been used by health organizations, schools and community projects across the UK and around the world to help people take action to improve their personal wellbeing.)
We asked, “How might we develop an experience with our natural history collection that promotes the Five Ways to Wellbeing?”
This was very different way of framing the development of a new gallery. We could have asked something along the lines of, “How can we make a new nature gallery on the first floor?”
Instead, we set about to more fully understand how visitors feel about nature. We did observations in the galleries and set up what we call the Project Lab. It’s an immersive space that you, the visitor, are involved in. For example, you might walk by and see the curators going through loads of boxes, and we’ll say, “Come in, have a look, put on some gloves, and help out!” This is as much about having a place to experiment as it is about having a lab mentality. It’s a place to take risks, prototype, and share ideas.
During the development of Notice Nature Feel Joy, the gallery was never closed. We prototyped in the space and tested our assumptions. For example, we had assumptions about taxidermy. We thought visitors would never want to know how a bird is stuffed. You think the reaction would be “Yuck” but what we heard was, “I’d love to know how that’s made.” So, we put out a partially taxidermied sparrow and offered taxidermy workshops.
Q: what’s your advice to other institutions considering adopting a human-centered design approach?
Feel the fear and do it anyway. It may be scary, but what’s the worst that can happen? That’s my own personal mantra.
Risk-taking is not part of our school system curricula here. So how do we fill that gap as a museum? How can museums be an alternative learning space that promotes this kind of thinking? We must adopt a notion of daring greatly.
We’re not there yet, but we are a million steps closer than where we were 18 months ago. It feels like it’s real now.