Peter Smith's commendation video transcript

Peter Smith

STEPHEN SMITH: And now we come to our honorary award. These are awarded by the University in recognition of somebody who has made a very significant contribution in their particular field. And I now have great pleasure in inviting Professor Warren Manning, Provost for Innovation and Research, to give the commendation for the conferment of the Honorary Degree of Master of the University to Peter Smith.

PROFESSOR WARREN MANNING: Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Pro Chancellor, Deputy Lieutenant, honoured guests, Mayor of Derby, graduands of 2022 and all our guests here today. It gives me great pleasure to be presenting Peter Smith for the award of Honorary Master of the University.

Peter was born in Derbyshire where he has lived and worked for most of his life. He trained as a solicitor in Derby with Flint Bishop and soon after qualifying became a founder of what became the well-known local law firm, Smith Partnership. He played a key role in developing the firm into one of the leading law firms in the area. 

In 2012 Derby City Council decided to transfer the city's three museums and art gallery to a newly created trust. The aim was to breathe new life into these long-established Derby institutions. Although they held precious public assets including the world's premier collection of works by Derby artist Joseph Wright, they had for many years been starved of funding and attention by a local authority with more pressing problems. The hope was that new commercial sources of funding could be found to replace or supplement public money, that private expertise could be drawn in and that the energy and interest of outside trustees could be engaged to give the museums a renaissance.  

Peter was appointed founding chair of the new Trust, and over the next few years, as head of the board of trustees, helped to lead the museums out of local authority control and begin the hoped-for transformation.

The Trust faced enormous challenges including the impact of government austerity, a major internal restructuring project, and the need to increase visitor engagement, the need to brighten and refurbish the museums, and, most challenging of all, the need to transform the long moribund Silk Mill Industrial Museum into an innovative new world-class Museum of Making showcasing Derby's manufacturing heritage. Because of financial pressures, there were even suggestions that, far from a fresh start, the museums might close, and there were public calls for paintings and valuable assets to be sold off.

Under Peter's leadership, in those early years, the Trust surmounted the initial political and financial challenges, achieved the organisational revolution required to deliver its objectives and successfully put together a bid for £15m of inward investment to create the Museum of Making.

Through the work of the Trust, the city's transformed museums now stand as ornament to reflect Derby's growing status and the Museum of Making opened last year to acclaim throughout the museum world, a landmark in the city and a major visitor draw.

Peter joins us today with his partner, Heather, son Harry, daughter-in-law Candida, sister Wendy and friend Peter. 

Chancellor, in recognition of his work as the founding Chair of the Derby Museums Trust during its early years, we are delighted to award Peter Smith with the honorary degree of Master of the University.

PETER SMITH: Chancellor, your distinguished colleagues and guests, ladies and gentlemen, and graduands of the University of Derby. I was delighted to be asked 10 years ago to be the founding Chair of the proposed Derby Museums Trust, being someone for whom the word museum quickens the pulse and stirs the blood. I've even visited the Pencil Museum in Keswick, wonderful, by the way, if you like pencils. 

So, having been rewarded by the experience itself I was deeply honoured to have this rich icing on an already rich cake, in this recognition by the University of Derby. And Chancellor, my deepest thanks on behalf of myself and everyone involved with Derby museums for this recognition, which truly belongs not just to me, but to all of my former colleagues. And thank you too, Chancellor, and to the University as a whole for the support which this University has given to the Trust from the beginning. 

For the City Council, creating the Trust was a brave step in the dark, since nothing like it had been attempted locally before and it was a step in the dark too for we, newly appointed trustees, we had little idea at the outset how to achieve the ambitious targets that we've been set or of the problems we would face. However, we made progress and despite the dramatic reduction in the public funding which the museums receive, the Council now spends 50% less on the city's museums than it did 10 years ago. Under the leadership of my distinguished successors and thanks to the vision of my fellow trustees and the prodigious exertions of the museum staff, the objectives which the Council gave to the Trust have now been triumphantly achieved. And, Chancellor, rather than talking about myself I wonder if I may be allowed to blow the museum's trumpet for a minute or two.  

Under the Trust the museums have been transformed, vastly more visitors, three or four times as many people employed, ten times as much commercial income as we had when the Trust began. Over the last few years, far from selling off items from the collections as you've heard had been suggested by some in our early days, the Trust has added important acquisitions including quite recently a superb Joseph Wright self-portrait of world-class quality. The range of the museum's ambition and its cultural reach is shown by the fact that they have hosted an exhibition of Leonardo 
da Vinci cartoons from the royal collections, here in Derby they had to issue timed tickets, unthinkable, before the Trust was created. But they have also had, for example, thousands of visitors to a fantastic exhibition of Vivian Westwood shoes and a display of children's toys through the ages, which had elderly men with beards weeping nostalgically over Meccano and plasticine. 
Derby's museums are full of priceless treasures, they're owned by the people of this city, and you can see them for nothing, although of course all visitors are encouraged to make a generous donation. 

Apart from artefacts from every period of the city's history and from across the world, we have as you've heard the world's largest collection of paintings by Joseph Wright. Wright of Derby, the quintessential artist of the enlightenment, and when we look at his works today, we can hear a voice speaking to us from across the centuries from the age of reason, and how much that is needed today, some of you may think. The £18m Museum of Making, risen spectacularly from the ashes of the old Industrial Museum, traces Derby's long history as a centre of manufacturing, but also shows what is being done here in our city today, there is an amazing Toyota car exploded to show its parts, there is a colossal Rolls-Royce aero engine, but there too are workshops and facilities, including computer-controlled cutting machines and 3D printers, which are open to you and to anyone to become involved with. 

University of Derby graduands, today you are marking the end of this stage of your education with, I'm sure, richly deserved success. But I would urge you not to stop learning. Two thousand years ago, the roman poet Seneca wrote 'Vita sine litteris mors est', 'Life without learning is death', which was the motto of my old school in Derby. And sharing the museums in my home city, after a career practising the law, was for me a rich learning experience. 

So, at times it was hard, sometimes awful, occasionally scary, as all challenges must be, but one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. So, if you choose to stay and build your life here in Derby, you have in our museums a repository of knowledge from which you too can continue to learn. It's a wonderful and stimulating resource for the mind, here on your doorstep and if you choose to follow Seneca's principle, then please make use of that resource to continue your learning. It's free, but don't forget to leave a donation. Thank you!

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