As well as an endorsement from Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green Party MP, there was some lively interrogation of the Happy Museum Project at the 2011 Museums Association Conference #mueums2011. The notion of connected museums responding to and leading on issues of community concern is not new. I acknowledged as much the launch of the Happy Museum project. It was not an unreasonable assertion from delegates, especially those who drew on the 30 years of work of Social History Curators Group and community museums, that many organisations are ‘doing it already’. Indeed a numbers of the radical curators of the 1980s are now running large institutions (National Musuems Liverpool, London Transport Museum to name but a few). There were barely hidden charges that the Happy Museum Project wore’ Emperors New Clothes’.
So how is the Happy Museum Project different from what goes on or has gone before?
It accepts that 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. What the Happy Museum Project is trying to do is to show that organisations should respond in new ways to a different context.
May Redfern noted that in her work in Castleford, to talk about happiness against a backdrop of poverty falls into risk a political fate akin to seventies environmental groups, who according to Dominic Sandbrook, were merely seen as creating opportunities for: “spoiled middle-class do-gooders to get together and indulge their bleeding hearts [offering] nothing to working-class households who supposedly had neither the time or the money to worry about…issues like the future of the planet.” People’s capacity for happiness is limited if their lives are crap.
I think Social justice is elusive without a more equal distribution of equity. The last 13 years saw the gap between rich and poor widen than more ever. Orthodox economic growth (seen as the best way to improve the lives of the poor) ensures that the continued consumption of this equity is the very thing that will make our planet unliveable. There is a greater need than ever to steward and share what we have.
We are also in the throes of a recession deeper than any since the 1930s, but this was preceeded by years of untrammelled consumption. People’s aspirations of personal wealth are greater than ever, but the generation now in their 20s are likely to be the first to be poorer than their parents.
Society has not only become more atomised but there is compelling research to show that rates of mental illness and anxiety have increased at the same rate as economic wealth. There is a need to decouple people’s sense of well-being from materialism
The civic realm has changed. The state, either national or local no longer has the monopoly on providing services. In some places this has led to loss of public spaces (closure of public libraries is especially alarming) resulted in privatisation of public spaces, in others it has led to more democracy as community groups provide innovative solutions to local problems.
Finally New Technology and social media means that people engage in the civic realm in a range of uncontrollable ways. Crowd sourcing and co-production is a reality, if museums don’t provide it, people will make it themselves.
The Happy Museum paper notes that museums in their role as story tellers, keepers of collective memory and meeting points they are well placed to interrogate these challenges. Many social history museums inspired by Springburn Museum in Glasgow in the 1980s articulated the local human impacts of loss, despair and hope of industrial decline. Today there’s an equal need to face the uncertainty and vulnerability felt by people in their localities in the face of global climate change and sustained decline in material wealth. Culture and especially museums should be in the vanguard in re-imagining a more liveable world.
Being a high-well being, sustainable organisation isn’t just about programming or collecting decisions. It is a much about institutional behaviour. Museums should be judged on what they are as well as what they do. If you work in a museum ask yourself::
- Do I have people who play a true leadership role in local civil society
- Do local people making decisions both about programming and governance
- Do I actively lead campaigns in the locality based on clearly articulated values
- When did I last measure the museum’s impact on the environment (including visitors)
- Has the museum ever shared its assets with community groups and enterprises
- Do I really know how emotionally engaged your users are. Are they happy and sad or are they just indifferent?
Embracing these challenges could lead to an invigorating transformation that places museums at the heart of an active public realm with significant benefits for society and museums alike.