Initial scope

My initial scope was to investigate strategies for engaging visitors, particularly families, with our Joseph Wright collection. Derby Museums is home to the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Wright’s work, totalling around 600 items. In 2012, the collection achieved designated status, with associated Arts Council funding to make the collection more accessible to the public. We used this funding to develop the Joseph Wright Institute which includes the existing Joseph Wright Gallery, a new study centre and a space where visitors of all ages can explore the collection and related artefacts. Our aim was to welcome students and academics but also school children, adult learning groups, community groups, family groups – in fact anyone in the city and beyond.

With the Audiences and Community team, I was already working to develop a Wright-inspired programme for both formal and informal learning but the bursary enabled me to specifically investigate ways of engaging visitors with the Wright exhibitions. I was particularly interested in inter-generational participation opportunities that might breakdown some of the barriers visitors might experience when encountering an 18thC portrait collection.

Principal findings

The opening of the Institute was scheduled to coincide with the opening of ‘Joseph Wright of Derby: Bath and Beyond’, a partnership exhibition with the Holburne Museum, Bath. My bursary award (shared with a colleague) was used to fund visits to The Holburne Museum, Bath, No 1, Royal Crescent and Bath Museum of Costume. I was able to spend time in the galleries and engagement areas, observing how visitors interacted with the collections, exhibitions and participation opportunities. I was also able to speak with staff and discuss the most successful strategies for audience engagement. Sharing the information gleaned by my colleague, we concluded that costumes which could be worn and in particular, posed in and photographed were unfailingly popular and offered an accessible way for audiences of all ages to relate to the collections. We observed  visitors who engaged with the costumes being active, laughing, talking with each other, asking questions, taking photographs, tweeting, returning to the collections, making return visits.

I was also able to study the ‘dressing up’ costumes available – their design, construction, how they were displayed, stored, promoted. I was able to observe how visitors interacted with them and establish the quality, size, range, number and variety of costumes which would best work for our gallery. I researched the companies who made the costumes, the fabrics they used, their strategies for fastenings, display and maintenance.


The bursary both motivated and facilitated a more thoughtful, focused  approach to the gallery development. We were able to visit, observe and evaluate other museums’ participation strategies and spend time developing those which could most suit our aims. The engagement gallery became the ‘Inspired by Wright’ Gallery which included work developed through our learning programmes with children and young people.

We developed the ‘Put Yourself in the Picture’ area of the gallery to encourage and invite visitors to respond to the work on display. Along with engagement strategies we had found successful in the past such as trails, feedback walls and creative areas, we developed high-quality replica costumes and an area where visitors can dress up and take photographs of themselves. The costumes were created by art historian Amanda Askari and are reproductions of garments represented in the Wright paintings on display.

The process of bringing these garments to life has revealed the extent to which Wright observed the fashion of his day, and his skill in rendering the textures and effects of light on eighteenth century textiles. We surmised that Wright perhaps used a combination of studio outfits and his artistic imagination to present these sitters in the ‘Grand Style’ of portraiture.

Sarah Carver and her Daughter, Sarah, Joseph Wright, 1769-70 and Alison Sutherland and her daughter, at the opening of the Joseph Wright Institute, May 2014

Sarah Carver and her Daughter, Sarah, Joseph Wright, 1769-70 and Alison Sutherland and her daughter, at the opening of the Joseph Wright Institute, May 2014

Since the Institute opened on 23rd May 2014, the ‘Put Yourself in the Picture’ area has been hugely popular. Hundreds of people have created drawings and taken part in the trail but the most popular element of all is the costumes which have been successful beyond our hopes.

In addition, in the five weeks since the Institute opened our public programme has included:-

* ‘Dressed to Impress’, a talk about costume in Wright Paintings.
* Three craft workshops relating to the costume in Wright.
* ‘Creativity on Parade’, an event where Adult Learners of all abilities paraded their own creations, and our costumes.

Audience feedback:

This is a good place because you can do more than just look at things. A Suleman, age 16

These costumes are fantastic – even adults can dress up!

Excellent – someone has clearly put a lot of thought into the room, the displays, the costumes etc.

I think it’s wonderful and very unique.  JM age 9

Impact on professional development

The bursary has enabled me to take time to visit other museums and galleries, which has refreshed and invigorated my practice. It has been invaluable to observe the areas in which our learning strategies compare extremely well nationally, and the areas where we can develop.

Focussing on the collection from a costume has given me the opportunity to develop a long-standing interest and I now plan to develop this aspect of my practice into a larger, longer term project. Working with art historian and costumier Amanda Askari has given me the opportunity to develop my personal practice and has extended the Museums’ knowledge about Wright portraits.