Why the Wedgwood Museum matters

The Wedgwood Museum faces selloff to pay £134m pension debt after court ruling

You don’t need to have a passion for pots to appreciate why the Wedgwood Museum represents the crown jewels of our industrial heritage. Josiah Wedgwood was responsible for some of the key innovations that drove industrialisation and design, and whose vision for technological progress went hand-in-hand with social progress. His was a vision of socially responsible capitalism that we could benefit from revisiting today.

The Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent is a unique factory-based collection and archive that tells the story of Wedgwood’s contribution to our age. And what precisely is that contribution? Well, to get well made, durable, beautifully designed crockery onto tables Josiah Wedgwood undertook painstaking materials research into new ceramic bodies, he invented new decorative techniques, he created the profession of the designer, he built one of the world’s first factories, he invented the idea of market segmentation and pioneered many of the essential principles of today’s marketing. ‘Buy one, get one free’ was a Wedgwood innovation. Not many people know that. He brought science and art into industry in a unique, powerful and visionary way.

He invested his wealth in Britain’s canal system, and built proper homes for the new working class he had created, driven by a paternalistic concern for his employees. A passionate slavery abolitionist, he produced cameos with an enslaved black figure on a white background above the legend “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” Soon becoming the fashion of the day, Wedgwood was the first to enable us to wear our issue-based politics on our sleeves, or around our necks. After Josiah’s death, his granddaughter married Charles Darwin – the Darwins being longstanding family friends – and the Wedgwood inheritance bought Darwin the time to write his theory of evolution.

His ambition, to give pottery “an elegance of form” embedded craft aesthetic and processes within the new technologies of his age – in much the same way as Steve Jobs achieved two centuries later. Like Jobs, but far more fundamentally, he redefined design and its management for a new age of change.

Today, every innovator, designer, industrialist, scientist, craft maker and entrepreneur is standing on the shoulders of this giant. His significance cannot be over-stated. To achieve his “elegance of form” required building a whole new infrastructure for manufacture, commerce and culture. “Father of English potters” is an epithet that tells only a fraction of his story and significance.

The company that bears his name went into administration in 2009, and the brand is today owned by a New York based private equity firm, with Wedgwood employing only a few hundred workers producing top-end products. This followed some catastrophically inept management in the company in its latter years. I should know: I spent an interesting lunchtime in the company of Wedgwood’s Board. They hauled me in because I had said on BBC TV some fairly damning (but very true) things about the paucity of their design management, and how it was leading directly to factory closures. In short, Wedgwood’s problems in the mid-1990s was nothing to do with cheap imports, rather its key challenge was with expensive imports. Analysis of trade statistics showed that they were losing market share in the top-end, design-led markets. This of course they denied. While they employed some exemplary designers, the skills of these talented individuals were being exercised in a strategic black hole. A passion for pots? It was my view that the bosses knew the meaning of neither.

I knew I was right when lunch was served. It was horrible; the kind of fare that even University caterers would avoid serving. Put simply, if you do not appreciate the joy of eating, how on earth can you create the world’s best tableware to share that joy with others? Clearly the days when pottery managers were people with “clay running in their veins” were over. These people were accountants, and they didn’t do that very well either.

Allowing Wedgwood to fold was above all damning to the generations of Stoke pottery workers and their families who had invested their working lives and their craft skills in the company. To be honest, the best pots in the world count for nothing if the people who make them, who believe in them, whose lives are defined by them, are simply thrown onto the industrial scrapheap. They deserve far better.

And that is the dilemma here. A blackhole in Wedgwood’s pension fund has led to a court ruling yesterday that the Wedgwood Museum should be sold off to raise the £134 million needed for the former employees’ pensions. Their jobs were taken away, and with it their dignity and self-worth. Their pension is all they have left.

But as important as their pensions, is our history. History only becomes meaningful if we study it, learn from it, draw lessons out from it to guide our future. It is the mark of a civilised society that we invest in understanding our past. The Wedgwood Museum is in UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register as, according to UNESCO, it represents a vital and significant part of our documentary heritage. It enables us to better understand and appreciate, not only Josiah Wedgwood’s remarkable innovations, but also those made by other potters and artists in creating an industry that defined its age and laid the ground for other industries to follow.

Without Josiah Wedgewood, it is doubtful that the UK ceramic and textile industries would have become the engines for industrialisation and world market dominance that they became. Without him, design would doubtless have gained a far lesser role in the UK economy, removing the foundations that today’s creative industries are built on. Without him, all the tricks of retail marketing we use today would have been pioneered in other countries. Without Josiah Wedgwood, who knows how we would earn our living in today’s world? I suppose we would always have slavery to fall back on.

THAT is why the Wedgwood Museum matters. And of course because it celebrates all those working people who gave their working lives to the pottery industry of Stoke-on-Trent.

As I’m not an accountant, I cannot answer the question of where the £134 million can be found to save the Museum and to pay the pensions. I understand such sums of money are trivial small change in the trading rooms of the City of London; perhaps it represents a couple of bankers’ bonuses. Perhaps some of our iconoclastic entrepreneurs could dig deep for the Museum? Step forward Sir Richard Branson. Shelve the tourist spacecraft, we have a time machine for you that will tell you far more about the world than 10 minutes in outer space will.

But I can answer the question of what it means if we allow this Museum to dissolve into private collections worldwide. It means we don’t really give a damn – about our history or the people who made it. I think we should. And we owe it to them to save it.

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7 thoughts on “Why the Wedgwood Museum matters

  1. The Companies of Wedgewood (also Coalport) and Royal Worcester (also Spode) are inconic British institutions and as part of our heritage should have been kept afloat by the Government. Instead, they were allowed to close, with manufacture of their china being sourced in Asia. Having produced many sculpture designs for Royal Worcester in particular as a free lance sculptor, I could no longer compete with the Asian manufacturers who would produce the sculpture original for free, to get the manufacturing business. Hundreds of years of highly skilled workers who had passed there skills down from generation to generation were on the scrap heap, with the inevitable result that those valuable skills being lost forever. Tour buses would being visitors from all over the world to have guided tours around the factories, where they could follow the production of the bone china from beginning to end ie moldmaking, casting, firing and painting. One of the interesting features of the Wedgewood factory was the outdoor killn on reails which had not been turned off for two hundred years. No doubt that will end up on the scrap heap, if it hasn’t already! To hear that the museums are to be sold off truly is the last nail in the coffin. No doubt the same fate awaits the Royal Worcester Museum. I heard some years ago there were plans to sell the land on which the Royal Worcester premises stood to build apartments. I truly hope people will get behind this to at least prevent the closure of these historic museums

  2. Can the National Trust or English Heritage help? Does Prince Charles have any involvement? He seems to care when it comes to great British products…

  3. What can we do to help prevent that happening.. This will be the second heavy blow on the Wedgwood.. When we are going to come back to our senses and save something that is so valuable for this nation?

    • Minister intervenes in Wedgwood case
      Professional Pensions | 06 Mar 2012 | 12:17
      By Jack Jones
      Categories: Defined Benefit Topics: Ppf, Steve webb
      Culture minister Ed Vaizey has stepped into the row over the Wedgwood museum collection which is under threat of being sold off to help plug a £134m pension shortfall.
      The collection is in danger of being auctioned after a judge ruled the proceeds could be used to pay off creditors, which include the Pension Protection Fund, after the museum was left as the last solvent member of its multi-employer scheme (PP Online, 20 December).
      And pensions minister Steve Webb revealed yesterday in Parliament that Vaizey (pictured) had taken the issue up with PPF chairman Lady Judge.
      Webb said: “[He] has spoken to the chairman of the PPF about the Wedgwood museum, has explained the importance of the collection for the nation and has asked her whether she can find a way of preventing the collection from being broken up. That is something we all want to see.”
      A spokesman for the PPF said the case was in the assessment period at the moment, but the lifeboat fund did not want to see the collection broken up.
      “We’re in constant conversation to try to avoid this, but we’re shackled by the law,” he said.

      Read more: http://www.professionalpensions.com/professional-pensions/news/2157363/minister-intervenes-wedgwood#ixzz1oVoRoMFN
      Professional Pensions – News and analysis from the pensions market. Subscribe now.

      • As the previous curator of the Wedgwood Museum I can only endorse your opinion of the food!
        along with poor design outsourcing production to the far east had the result of unreliable supplies.

        About three years ago I went to a prominent Mayfair shop to buy a wedding present. when i was at Wedgwood they were one of our main london customers at the top end of the market.

        to my great surprise I saw they had no Wedgwood at all. so I asked one of the salesmen why. His reply was along the lines that as Wegwood now imported most of their ware deliveries were totally unreliable. consequently they gave up on them.

        Since the Attorney-General has decided not appeal the High Court decision we await developments. In the current economic plight I cannot see the government finding the unds.

        Bruce Tersall

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