Why being a Social Enterprise matters to the Museum of East Anglian Life

 For several years the MEAL has described itself as a social enterprise. For many in the museum world social enterprise is an indefinable term. According the UK Social Enterprise Coalition

Many commercial businesses would consider themselves to have social objectives, but social enterprises are distinctive because their social or environmental purpose is central to what they do. Rather than maximizing shareholder value their main aim is to generate profit to further their social and environmental goals.

Colleagues within the sector have questioned the loose definition of the term. Most museums are committed to doing public good, they open their doors to all, they carry out work engaging communities and they are stewards of collections and sites which exist for the benefit of the public. What is to stop an independent museum with charitable status from declaring itself a social enterprise? Well nothing really.

Others have suggested that being a social enterprise lessens the value of the institution as museum. To that I suggest that whilst Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen is a social enterprise it is still a restaurant, the Big Issue is a social enterprise, it is still a magazine. Even as a social enterprise MEAL is still a museum.

If only all museums were as entrepreneurial as Gypsy Travellers...

In his Stephen Weil memorial lecture in 2006 David Fleming beautifully described a museum as a social enterprise, judged ‘not what it is but what it does’.  It is described it similarly as stimulator of economies, a collective psychologist and ultimately as a ‘stairway to heaven’ enabling individuals regardless of their place in the world, to experience transformational encounters. Fleming’s use of the word enterprise is interesting and limiting – interchangeable with the word organisation. Whilst I agree that museums be concerned absolutely with what they do, it also matters what they are. A true social enterprise, business minded, opportunistic but exuding progressive values and a sense of social justice offers a template for the social history museums of the future.

At MEAL it is vital that we have the utmost belief in what we are as well as what we do. Some recent organisational development work has helped us articulate who we are and what is important to us.

Our Cause

The Museum of East Anglian Life is a social enterprise sharing the compelling story of East Anglian lives through historic buildings, collections and landscape. We aim to enrich people’s lives, encouraging enjoyment, learning and participation through our public programmes, training and volunteering schemes.

The museum is a space for people to be active, learn new things, look at the world differently, make friends and give something back


We prize our distinctive and precious assets; our landscape, historic buildings and collections, people and livestock.  We will care for and show them off to the standards they deserve.


We’d rather not do it on our own. We welcome all members of the community to get involved, be active and exchange knowledge

Social enterprise

We want to be a resilient organisation. We’ll be opportunistic and creative in using our unique assets and surroundings to help people fulfil their ambitions.


We encourage curiosity and consideration. Our work should inspire and entertain, be playful and thoughtful and help people take more notice about the world around them.

Yesterday, I gave a paper at a Museum ID seminar on museums and social enterprise. The presentation is downloadable here.

Building a social enterprise at the Museum of East Anglian Life PDF version 2mb

Building a Social Enterprise at the Museum of East Anglian Life

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3 Responses to Why being a Social Enterprise matters to the Museum of East Anglian Life

  1. May Redfern says:

    Good to see a fuller definition of museum as social enterprise emerging.

    When the social enterprise model started to be applied to museums several years ago it took me a while to work out that there could be two aspects to defining a museum as social enterprise: on the one hand this is a museum which reinvests surplus for social purposes, which is a now an established UK model and also applied to all sorts of industries that is encouraged by government.

    On the other hand, in the US, the social enterprise model of the museum fits with the notion that in order to be supported through public moneys, it should be judged by the people who provide it.

    The museum as social enterprise which is judged ‘not by what it is but what it does’ in David Fleming’s paper refers to Stephen Weil’s essay, New Words, Familiar Music – The Museum as Social Enterprise, in which Weil argues that the concept of social enterprise lies in a museum’s capability in delivering social outcomes that have been understood and defined in advance, drawing “its legitimacy from what it does rather than what it is.” This type of museum would, crucially, “regard its collections and other resources as means towards the accomplishment of its entrepreneurial goals, not as ends in themselves.” (This is from the book WEIL, S. Making Museums Matter Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983, p.80. David Fleming’s paper can be downloaded at http://www.intercom.museum/Taiwan2006a.html )

  2. barry lane says:

    interesting – i just want to hear more

  3. Pingback: Counting down to the MGS conference « Museums Galleries Scotland Blog

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