Co-production of knowledge: shaping the research framework of the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage Site

By Carry van Lieshout and Georgina Endfield

The Silk Mill Museum

The Silk Mill Museum. Source: Wikipedia

 

The Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage site stretches along the river Derwent in Derbyshire, and incorporates the early industrial mills of this area. These include the Silk Mill in Derby, were John Lombe introduced water-powered silk spinning, as well as Richard Arkwright’s mills at Cromford, considered the birthplace of the factory system that allowed water-powered continuous production. Arkwright’s technology as well as his model of worker’s settlements were copied along the course of the river and beyond, as the mechanisation of cotton production spread out over the world. Because of the central role many of these mills played in the Industrial Revolution, a 15 mile stretch of the Derwent Valley was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. The site is managed by the Derwent Valley Mills Partnership, which also produces books and educational material about the mills and the valley’s wider significance.

The Derwent Valley Mills Partnership is currently planning its new research framework, funded by English Heritage, and has organised 4 workshops to develop research objectives on a series of broad themes. The author’s of this blog post, Georgina and Carry attended the first one of these workshops on March 17. While preliminary meetings had identified a range of topics or questions that have either received little attention or could benefit from more analysis, these topics needed to be brought together into narratives in order to form a coherent research strategy. This strategy will essentially be a synthesis of current views of research priorities and will be useful for future projects or funding applications. While most of the broad themes were not specifically sough related, our input is allowing us to shape their research strategy by contributing cutting edge views from the field of environmental history and by offering power and water as potential narratives to study this area.

The workshop was held at the Silk Mill in Derby. This mill had originally been constructed by George Sorocold and became the first mill in England to use water power to mass-produce silk. The Silk Mill is currently being reinvented as a venue for co-production, creativity and knowledge exchange, based on the principles of the Enlightenment, and its combination of large open spaces, river views and interesting nooks and crannies make it an inspiring venue for a meeting.  Fuelled by regular biscuit breaks and a lunch trip to a very pleasant local deli, we participated in a broad ranging set of discussions with our focus group.

Flip chart

Our focus group at work. Photo: Carry van Lieshout

The group was a mix of academics from a variety of universities and disciplines, local historians, representatives of diverse museums, conservation societies and researchers from the other mills. We split into groups to tackle the 3 themes of the day: Changing Interpretations of the Derwent Valley, Industry and Trade before the Factory System, and the Enlightenment. The format was that each group would come up with 3 Research Objectives for each theme, each of which would combine several of the research topics. The projected outcome at the end of the series of workshops will be a Research Agenda and Strategy for the Derwent Valley Mills Heritage Site in book and web form. An earlier example of such a research strategy document for East Midlands Heritage, which this process was based on, has been successful in identifying viable projects and guiding funding applications. The wealth of untapped resources and narratives that could be studied in the context of the Derwent makes us hopeful that this series of workshop will do the same!

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