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.