At the end of January 2022, the Esmee Fairbairn funded project at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, to rehome material from the Derbyshire School Library Service, reaches its conclusion. The project started in March 2019 and has seen the successful, and ethical, rehoming of thousands of museum quality paintings and artefacts. A total of 107 museums, galleries, archives, libraries, trusts and foundations across this country and abroad have received items. This is a personal reflection of the project.

The Derbyshire School Museum Service was set up in 1936, following a Carnegie Trust grant, to provide children living in isolated rural towns and villages in Derbyshire access to museum quality items. This was an innovative scheme and the first of its kind in the UK, with many councils following Derbyshire’s example. It was later absorbed into the Schools Library Service (SLS), founded in 1951. Several thousand items were collected by the service, and comprised of paintings, prints, textiles, sculpture, studio pottery and glass, world cultures, social history, and archaeological material. Sources for the items were diverse and include private donations, purchases from Heals and Sons, Fortnum and Mason, Primavera, Berkeley Galleries, as well as from schemes such as the School Education for the Arts. The founder of the service, Barbara Winstanley, even travelled to Canada to purchase Inuit and First Nations material.

Barbara Winstanley founder of the Derbyshire School Library Service
The School Library Service stores near Derby in the 1950’s
The School Library Service van delivering items to a school in Derbyshire, 1950’s

A number of factors over time, led to the closing of the service, such as changes in the curriculum, budget cuts, the greater accessibility that people had to cars and public transport and the arrival of televisions and the internet. And so the service closed its doors in 2018. Items were transferred to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery and funding was secured from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation for the items to be researched, and ethical futures for the collection found.

The curatorial staff at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery carried out exhaustive research into the collections held at other museums and galleries, to see if items held at Buxton would be a suitable addition, and dialogue was opened up with curators at other institutions. Lists of the items were also published on the Museum Association’s “Find an Object” website, along with an expression of interest form. This form gave an opportunity for institutions to explain the reasoning as to why the item should be transferred to them, and this enabled the curatorial staff, along with invited specialists in their field of expertise, to make sound judgements as to who was to get what. Importantly, the object had to be within the public realm, be displayed and researched, as well as be accessible to school children for educational programmes.

Research work was also required into the items as sometimes previous identification of world cultures material was not correct or tainted with outdated views and colonialism. One example is a Hindu statue which was originally described as being the male god Shiva, dating to the 8th century and originating from South India. My specialism is in Hindu art and I recognised it as being the goddess Durga, dating to the 19th century and originating from north India! This glaring mistake was quickly rectified.  

Marble statue of the goddess Durga, India (acc. No. M428)

An artist engagement programme was put in place during the first lockdown, and eight contracts were awarded to the following:

Tullie House Museum, Carlisle worked with Prism Arts and two of their participants, Harvey Tye and Jonathon Harkins, responding to Japanese prints.

Harvey’s Temples by Harvey Tye

Bristol Museum worked via Zoom with Australian artist Ryan Presley (in Australia) responding to boomerangs, and with Akran Girmay responding to West African ceremonial paddles.

Aero-dynamism Past the Point of No Return by Ryan Presley

Rob Young worked with the de Morgan Foundation at Cannon Hall in Barnsley, responding to the vase made by William de Morgan.

The De Morgans by Rob Young

Poet Mark Johnson responded to paintings transferred to Oriel Mon in Anglesey.

Part of the poem The Words Fly Home by Mark Johnson

Ingrid Karlsson, Helen Leaf, and Gordon McLellen responded to Sami and Inuit material retained by Buxton Museum.

The Eight Seasons by Ingrid Katarina Karlsson

Manchester Museum used the opportunity to consult Chinese students back in China during COVID-19 about the Chinese collection the museum had received as they redevelop their Chinese and South East Asian galleries.

Silk shoes for bound feet, China (Acc. No. M1770b.2). Transferred to Manchester Museum

The resulting work can be seen at

There are too many items, and too many stories to tell, for this blog, but below is a selection of some of the items that have been transferred.

The bulk of the Chinese collection went to Manchester Museum. They are working on a new gallery that will explore the rich cultural heritage of China, and historic and contemporary links between Manchester and China through rarely seen collections, personal stories, and international research.

Mang-ao jacket, China (Acc. No. M832). Transferred to Manchester Museum

The British Museum were allocated a beautiful watercolour of Hong Kong harbour by Lui Shou-Kwan. An important 20th century artist, Liu was one of those attempting to bring Western modernism into Chinese art.

Hong Kong Harbour by Liu Shou-Kwan (Acc. No. F2256). Transferred to The British Museum

One of the intriguing pieces was a Roman silver spoon. Through my investigations I discovered that the spoon had originally formed part of a hoard of silver objects that had been buried in Canterbury towards the end of the Roman Empire. The hoard was found by chance by road workers in 1962, and it would seem that they were not very honest in declaring all of the treasure. How it later came into the SLS collection is a bit of a mystery, but it has been transferred to Canterbury Roman Museum where it has joined the rest of the hoard.

Roman silver spoon from the Canterbury hoard (Acc. No. DERSB: 2008.18.36). Transferred to Canterbury Roman Museum

Oriel Ynys Mon, on Anglesey, received some 20th century paintings as well as a memorial stone commemorating the sinking of the ship, The Royal Charter, off the coast of Anglesey in 1859. One of the paintings that was transferred to them is Pony on Llanddwyn Island by Kyffin Williams.

Pony on Llanddwyn Island by Kyffin Williams (Acc. No. F2137). Transferred to Oriel Ynys Mon

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery has received a significant collection of South American, Polynesian and Aboriginal material. Curators at Bristol are actively researching this material and looking at restitution and repatriation of items in the future. One item they received is a shaman’s cape. This item came from the Jivaro people of Ecuador and is made from bark cloth and decorated with hummingbird feathers and a complete toucan. The Jivaro believe that the toucan is an intermediary between this world and the spirit world.

Jivaro shaman’s cloak (Acc. No. M603.1a). Transferred to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

One item I thought I would struggle to rehome is a letter dated 13 March 1928, from John Gavin Tait to the Egyptologist E N Adler regarding the translation of two Greek ostraca from Egypt. My research revealed that the department of Egyptology at the University of Denmark holds the archive for Adler. They are currently working on a re-edition of the Greek and Demotic texts from the Adler collection, and the letter was the missing piece in their jigsaw. Therefore, the University of Denmark was the best home for it.

Letter from John Gavin Tait to E N Adler (Acc. No. SOCH00039). Transferred to the University of Denmark

You are probably wondering what Buxton Museum and Art Gallery kept from the SLS collection. Well, we did keep quite a bit, so long as it fitted in with our collection policy. In total we kept 663 items, which range from paintings, prints, sculpture, studio pottery, archaeological, social history, and world cultures items

Below is a selection of images of some of the pieces we transferred to the permanent collection.

Bowl with image of a blackbird by Margaret Hine (Acc. No. DMS 112M.4)
Knickers lino print by unknown artist (Acc. No. F00029)
Japanese silk and gold thread panel depicting crane in a landscape (Acc. No. JAP0005)
Haddon Hall by John Lally (Acc. No. F2106)
Maori treasure box (Acc. No. M429b.2)

Many of the items that have been transferred to new homes have already been put on display. Some items have required conservation or further research, and so wait for their new place in the spotlight. Should you visit a museum in the UK, and an object or painting takes your interest, take a look at the label. If it says “Transferred from Derbyshire County Council” then it will have come from SLS.

The SLS project has had a very positive outcome, and the collection can still be enjoyed by the public in many diverse venues across the UK. The Native American and First Nations material from the SLS collection will form part of a new project set to start in February. I shall be studying the material and restitution policies, putting on an exhibition in March at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, and later this year making a trip over to the USA and Canada to return items to the indigenous communities.

The project has faced a few challenges, not least the Pandemic, which saw the museum close in line with government guidance, and staff working from home. Deadlines could not be reached and so the project had to be extended. Lockdown now seems like a bit of a distant memory, but the challenges of home schooling, caring for elderly parents, isolation from family and loved ones, and the general uncertainty of the future is something, I am sure, we hope never to revisit.

To work on the breadth and quality of this kind of material is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it has been an experience I will not forget. I have worked with wonderful colleagues…who have also become great friends. I have met some amazing people from other museums and galleries, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of them for their patience, friendly words, encouragement, advice and knowledge, and for making this an incredible experience.

Recipients of material from the Derbyshire School Library Service

  1. Buxton Museum and Art Gallery
  2. Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
  3. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
  4. Chesterfield Museum, Derbyshire
  5. Horniman, London
  6. Derby Museum and Art Gallery
  7. The Oriental Museum, Durham
  8. Sheffield Hallam University
  9. Aberystwyth University
  10. Manchester Metropolitan University
  11. Central St Martins, London
  12. Manchester Museum
  13. Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery
  14. Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge
  15. Roman Museum, Canterbury
  16. Milford House, Armagh, Northern Ireland
  17. Southwold Museum, Suffolk
  18. Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire
  19. Northampton Museum and Art Gallery
  20. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
  21. Derbyshire Record Office, Matlock
  22. Bradford Museum, West Yorkshire
  23. Nottingham Castle Museum
  24. Kingston Museum, London
  25. The DeMarco Archive, Edinburgh
  26. The Atkinson Gallery, Southport
  27. Ipswich Museum, Suffolk
  28. The Museum of British Folklore, Boscastle, Cornwall
  29. The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, Cornwall
  30. The Museum of English Rural Life, Reading
  31. The Kennel Club, London
  32. Crich Tram Museum, Derbyshire
  33. Durham University
  34. Pallant House, Chichester
  35. Astley Cheetham Gallery, Stalybridge, Tameside
  36. Charnwood Museum, Loughborough
  37. Penlee House, Penzance, Cornwall
  38. York Art Gallery
  39. Hepworth Wakefield
  40. Reading University
  41. Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead, Wirral
  42. National Museums of Northern Ireland (Ulster Museum)
  43. Towner Eastbourne
  44. Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, Essex
  45. Glynn Vivian, Swansea
  46. The Science Museum, London/Manchester
  47. DeMontfort University, Leicester
  48. Tullie House, Carlisle
  49. Y-Gaer, Brecon
  50. Oriel Mon, Anglesey
  51. Bingham Library, Cirencester
  52. The Embroiders Guild, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire
  53. Southend Museum and Art Gallery, Essex
  54. St Albans Museum and Art Gallery,
  55. Gwynedd Museum, Bangor
  56. The British Museum, London
  57. Plas yn Rhiw, Gwynedd
  58. The Victoria and Albert, London
  59. Fleetwood, Lancashire
  60. Elmbridge, Surrey
  61. Royal School of Needlework, Hampton Court Palace, London
  62. National Museums of Scotland (Edinburgh)
  63. The Garden Museum, London
  64. The Charleston Trust, East Sussex
  65. Ceredigion, Mid Wales
  66. Bakewell Old House, Derbyshire
  67. Ben Uri Gallery, London
  68. Maidstone Museum, Kent
  69. Prince Philip Zoological, London
  70. Bradford City Art Gallery, West Yorkshire
  71. Robinson College, Cambridge
  72. Schuetz-Wolff Foundation, Freiburg, Germany
  73. Salford University
  74. Andrew Holmes, London
  75. The Fitzwilliam, Cambridge
  76. Matlock Mining Museum, Derbyshire
  77. Haslemere Museum, Surrey
  78. The Lace Guild, Stourbridge, Worcestershire
  79. Kew Gardens, London
  80. Newark Museum, Nottinghamshire
  81. St Anne’s Roman Catholic Church, Buxton
  82. The Crescent Heritage Experience, Buxton
  83. Leicestershire Museums
  84. Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire
  85. Gladstone Potteries Museum, Stoke
  86. Saffron Walden Museum, Essex
  87. Ditchling Museum, East Sussex
  88. Russell-Cotes Museum, Bournemouth
  89. Westminster College, London
  90. The Blackfeet Nation, North Dakota, USA
  91. The Quilters Guild, York
  92. Edinburgh University
  93. National Coal Mining Museum, Wakefield, Yorkshire
  94. Farnham Museum, Kent
  95. Horsepower Museum, Winchester
  96. York University School of Conservation
  97. Keele University, Staffordshire
  98. Museum Conservation Services, Cambridge
  99. Department of Egyptology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
  100. DeMorgan Foundation, Cannon Hall, South Yorkshire/London
  101. Belfast Museum, Northern Ireland
  102. Stourbridge Glass Museum. Suffolk
  103. Sunderland Glass Museum
  104. Henry Moore Institute, Leeds
  105. Leach Pottery Museum, Cornwall
  106. Skelton Workshops, Hassocks, West Sussex
  107. William Morris Society, London

The catalogue entries for the School Library Service are held at the Derbyshire Record Office CalmView: Overview ( along with the Derbyshire Museums Service CalmView: Overview (