Launching the Happy Museum Project

Last night was launched the Happy Museum Project. Its a provocation to museums to become more attuned to their stewardship responsibilities to their surroundings and to be more able to make their audiences happier. A paper The Happy Museum has been published and we’ll be offering a number of commissions to other museums  to carry out work inspired by happiness. Check out http://www.happymuseumproject.org

Here’s what I said about the story behind the project

I started my first full-time job in museums the week Tony Blair got elected in 1997.We might look back and describe those 13 years since then as the good times for culture in the UK. It was a time when expansion and growth were unprecedented.

Our major towns and cities have a slew of new and inspiring museums. The policy of free admission has inspired increasing numbers of people to enjoy arts and heritage. But, the current economic climate shows the limits of inexorable growth.  The habit of growth has skewed the way people who work in culture think. Before the downturn, by proving our work contributes to the economic potential of a locality, we got more money, with more money we got to do more stuff for more people.

This was fine to a point but it has created a rigid, mechanistic mindset in the practice of museum people. Much time was spent trying to prove to the Treasury or to local funders, that culture contributed to objectives in a range of areas from reducing crime to improving educational attainment, to improving health and contributing to economic regeneration. Whilst this may have been be true, for me this approach took much of the joy out of my work. We may be culturally richer than ever before but are we happier.

I suggest that future efforts be less geared to producing more and more cultural stuff, but should concentrate on the stewardship of our surroundings and better understanding the role we can play of connector in Civil Society

The use of the word happiness may appear trite, insubstantial when set alongside other progressive notions such as social justice. Yet a preoccupation with economic growth has made real social justice more elusive. The gap between rich and poor is wider than ever, and in a range of other areas, access to services, health and the quality of environment, peoples experiences are still very unequal depending on their economic circumstances.

In current political conversations the notions of mutualism and active agency have been conflated into the amorphous ideas of Big Society. Politicians have been quite unsuccessful in communicating the implications of such an approach, in the context of our relationship to the state and each other. Moreover the consensus in the three big parties that economic growth will be the only means to raise living standards further illustrates that its business as usual. For all the talk of reshaping civil society, the health of the nation is measured by its material wealth

Museums should heed research in psychology which has shed new light on the factors that lead people to feel their lives are fulfilling, meaningful and worthwhile.

The most important finding is that material goods play considerably less of a role in determining well-being than our spending patterns might suggest. For many people the pressure to “keep up” in consumption terms has been actively detrimental to real well-being and perhaps even a factor in increased risk of mental illness.[1] Or as psychologist Oliver James puts it, our society is suffering from Affluenza.

Add to this the unprecedented pressure humans are placing on the planet, either through fossil fuel dependency or through over-use of precious resources, we might not just be at the end of our tether but looking at the end of our planet.

So the challenge to museums is how to adapt their behaviours to promote high well-being, sustainable living. Many museums have addressed carbon reduction through effectively re-using and recycling or by engineering their buildings so that they are energy efficient. But how many have altered their understanding of what it means to do public good beyond following policy agendas, regardless of how progressive they are. Instrumental, deficit funding policies backed up Byzantine evaluative metrics have made it more desirable that participants in museum activities are more able to enter the labour market than become a good neighbour.

Thanks to funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Breakthrough Fund, I’ve been able to explore these ideas further.

At the Museum of East Anglian Life we ‘ve developed a host of social programmes which has used cultural heritage to help people make friends, be active, learn something new, look at the world differently and give back to the community. What made the museum tick weren’t just its collections or historic buildings but the social networks built up within the people who worked there. So whether it was participating in adding content to exhibitions, conservation of collections or being involved with our training schemes, we could see that being active at the museum made people happy.

We asked the New Economics Foundation and some museum thinkers  to write a think-piece, The Happy Museum which might cause museums to reconsider what they do.

The paper suggests that museums are in a great position to use their trust and popularity to encourage the public to face the challenges of climate change, resource scarcity and to increase well-being and happiness. However they need address behaviours which have rightly or wrong become ingrained. Rather than be just tellers, they should accept they don’t have all the answers, From time to time they should eschew their objectivity and actively lead campaigns. Rather view themselves as a neutral spaces museums should realise the power of the museum as a place for encounters and its potential use as a rallying point or refuge for the community.

At the foot of the paper we suggest a few behaviours museums might adopt:

For a start  they could adopt NEF’s five ways to well-being, Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep learning and Give

Find ways to have more mutual relationships with communities, supporters and visitors. Consider the possibility of becoming a mutual organisation, or it as a co-operative.

Value and protect natural and cultural environments and be sensitive to the impact of the museum and its visitors on them. Focus on quality and don’t be seduced by growth for its own sake.

Counting visitors tells us nothing about the quality of their experience or the contribution to their well-being. Ask your audience how your work affects them emotionally; don’t wait for someone else to design the perfect metrics – talk to people, understand what makes them feel happier, measure that.

Museum learning is already all the things much orthodox learning is not: curiosity driven; non-judgmental; non-compulsory; engaging; informal; and fun. The people needed in the future will be resilient, creative, resourceful and empathetic systems-thinkers, exactly the kind of capacities museum learning can support.

Of course many museums do appreciate their position at the heart of their community. There are great examples of those which combine scholarship, stewardship learning and participation (some are here tonight). What the Happy Museum Project is trying to do is to show that the context is now different. Climate change, pressures on the planets finite resources and awareness that a good, happy society need not set economic growth as it most meaningful measure offers us a chance to re-imagine the purpose of the museums. Museums need to realise their role as connector, viewing people not as audiences but as collaborators, not as beneficiaries but citizens and stewards who nurture and pass on knowledge to their friends and neighbours.


[1] See, e.g. Jenkins R, Bhugra D, Bebbington P, Brugha T, Farrell M, Coid J, Fryers T, Weich S, Singleton N and Meltzer H (2008) ‘Debt, income and mental disorder in the general population’ Psychological Medicine 38, pp. 1485-1494.

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