Museums and a No-growth Economy

Last week I heard, director of the New Economics Foundation, Stewart Wallis talk about The Arts in the Moral Economy at an event held by Mission Money Models . Wallis believes that the prevailing global economic model is incompatible with the social well-being of people and sustainability of the environment. Four clear issues should be addressed lest humanity implodes.

  • Firstly – notwithstanding Global warning, there are not enough resources on earth to sustain current levels of economic growth. In 1970 the world consumed enough resources for one planet to supply our material desires, by 2020 we would need 1.3 planets to sustain the same level or economic growth.
  • Secondly – the control of those resources are in the hands of those remote from their environment be they central governments and corporation. There is a need to promote the notion of local stewardship so that those who care for those resources share in the profits generated from them.
  • Thirdly – the growth in world GDP has been matched by growing levels in inequality. Wilkinson and Pickett’s the Spirit Level carried out studies across the world showing that societies with smaller gap between rich and poor experienced lower levels of crime, better standards of health care and lower levels of mental in illness
  • Fourthly – a rise in GDP has gone hand in hand with a rise in mental illness especially in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Countries. Anxiety over status and recognition measured in the need for material wealth has had an adverse affect on people’s well-being.


In short our unhappy, unequal society is running out of planet.

I think Wallis’ case is difficult to refute and museums should consider a future where the ‘moral economy’ predominates their thinking.

This year the Museums Libraries and Archives Council is to publish a strategy for museums in England. There is rightly much anxiety about future funding as public sector spending is almost certainly to be reduced. There is an apparent need to make museums more entrepreneurial and better equipped to elicit donations from philanthropists. I would ask for what purpose? So that buildings, collections and exhibition programmes can grow indefinitely? This is business as usual and presupposes that growth is essential and desirable.

But what would museums be like if they existed, willingly, in a landscape of no-growth.

Here a few starters for an alternative museums strategy

  • Elements of future funding should be based on the natural resources incurred.  All museums should be operating in a way that is carbon neutral or carbon positive. (see paper by  Purcell Miller Tritton at the forthcoming Museums id seminar).
  • Work towards more community ownership of the assets of a museum. Local people should be responsible for how buildings and collection are used for greater community benefit.
  • There should be a fairer distribution of collections which are deemed to be of importance. Why should, local people either directly or through taxes, be asked to contribute to keep the Staffordshire hoard in the West Midlands (Londoners would not be asked to ‘buy’ these items for the British Museum).
  • Enable the creation of a fair, social market where all museums can bid openly to provide a range of services, exploiting their assets, both within and without their own communites.
  • Museums should focus their public programmes on helping people live happy, meaningful lives. There are wonderful learning and participation programmes in UK museums but many of them are focused too narrowly on improving educational attainment or making people more economically active. Programming should shift emphasis away from the benefits to the individual but towards the broader aims of building strong social networks and resilient communities  


Above all we should consider doing less with less. Consolidating our role as trusted and open institutions which focus on peoples well-being and happiness.

Growth in the Museum of East Anglian Life's garden

This entry was posted in economy, museums, sustainability, well-being and happiness. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Museums and a No-growth Economy

  1. Pingback: OpenCulture » Blog Archive » Here comes ‘Post-Digital’ Culture

  2. Pingback: Moved to comment « Culture, learning & innovation

  3. Alex Bowles says:

    Programming should shift emphasis away from the benefits to the individual but towards the broader aims of building strong social networks and resilient communities.

    That, of course, is one of the most beneficial things that any institution can do for any individual.

    In other words, there’s no hard choice here. And I suspect that an oblique approach like this will garner far more support from individuals than any approach that focuses on them to the exclusion of all else.

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