Taking the long term view – Maurice Davies

‘The wonderfully named Wellbeing of Future Generations Act requires public organisations to consider the long-term implications of their decisions for people and places, culture and communities. It aims to encourage people to think harder about the future and to consider the triple bottom line of environment and society as well economy. In fact, with its interest in culture it could even be seen as promoting a quadruple bottom line approach to decision making in which organisations consider cultural impact alongside economic, social and environmental impacts.

The Act was described by one minister as “the most ambitious piece of legislation that the … government has ever attempted. It will require a fundamental shift in how we seek to tackle our biggest challenges as a nation.” It’s already been used to question proposed government expenditure on upgrading motorways and the details of investment in new manufacturing plants.

With its focus on the long-term and interest in more than money, the Act is a good fit with museums and a report recently published by the Happy Museum Project shows how the seven goals in the Act can inform the work of museums. It supports things such as improving access, supporting local makers, reducing energy use, increasing wellbeing for vulnerable people and being more activist.

So why haven’t you heard much about the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act: there’s the catch, it applies only in Wales. But that’s no reason why your museum shouldn’t think about how it could influence your decisions and the way you work.’

To get started look at the Happy Museum Report Welsh museums and the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act

Maurice Davies – Head of Collections, Royal Academy of Arts and Trustee of Happy Museum

Connecting with communities around environmental concerns

On 5th March 2019 a small but energised group of museum professionals gathered at Woodhorn Colliery Museum to consider how environmental concerns might be focus for connections between a museum and its community.  Museums in the Happy Museum community of practice already tackle subjects as diverse as energy use, waste and recycling, food production and consumption, local planning and air pollution.  The workshop offered the chance to hear practical examples and experiences from Museums Northumberland, Derby Museums, Chester Zoo and Manchester University Museum and involved participants from Barnsley Museum and National Trust West Midlands.

After an initial welcome to Woodhorn from museum Director, Rowan Brown we heard from Charlotte Smith, Head of Discovery and Learning at Chester Zoo.  Their explicit aim – preventing extinction – supports a more direct campaigning role than most museums allowing them to undertake a variety of campaigns including protection for songbirds, tackling the illegal trade in wildlife, promoting sustainable palm oil and encouraging local biodiversity.  These campaigns enable them to engage a very diverse audience, for many of whom the lure of a good day out is higher on their immediate agenda than an interest in conservation.

Their Wildlife Connections campaign brings together staff and local champions alongside local groups such as RSPB, Woodland Trust and the Bat Conservation Trust to build social norms in the local community around wildlife projection.

Chester Zoo’s Sustainable Palm Oil Challenge started with a focus on their own supply chain which helped them to then advise and campaign to local audiences and businesses.  Only a few days later, on 12th March, Chester declared itself the first Sustainable Palm Oil City engaging restaurants, schools, businesses and manufacturers and helping prevent rainforest deforestation in tropical regions.  Read more about their shareable resources.

We then heard from Anna Bunney, Engagement Manager at Manchester University Museum.  Anna explained that social engagement and social action are at the heart of the museum’s ambitions to be an engine for change, wellbeing and equality.  The museum is increasingly becoming more vocal about its mission, and focused on how to support people to move from participation to action.

A good example was the Rubbish Night at the Museum where the museum responded to local concerns about levels of waste and rubbish by hosting a fantastically well attended evening event which brought together representatives of over 40 different local groups together with officials an policy makers with the aim of empowering residents and officials across the city.  Anna described the energy and ambition of the local resident as ‘amazing’.


Climate Control was an exhibition focused on generating discussion and exchange around the subject of Climate Change.  Rather than retelling doom and gloom stories of melting ice-caps and rising sea-levels, the exhibitions and events focused on the idea that we can’t change the past but we can change the future. The emphasis was on encouraging critical thinking, creative solutions, and exploring the kind of world we want to live in.  The museum have since created a Bureau of Citizens Action a place to can connect with people who are passionate about making the world a better place, from researchers and scientists to artists and activists. A programme of drop-in surgeries covers various themes, from environmental and social issues to local and global challenges, offering information and practical advice, as well as ideas, inspiration and simple steps towards action and has included contributors focusing on de-cluttering, Olio (a food sharing platform) and wildlife in the city.

The museum’s current exhibition, Heritage Futures, combines latest academic research with incredible objects, to look at at heritage as the building blocks of the future, through four themes: Profusion explores what we should we pass on to future generations in an age of mass production and consumption. Diversity reflects on how diversity in nature and in cultural traditions can help people and nature cope with future uncertainty. Transformation looks at heritage as something that is not fixed, but that changes over time.  Uncertainty considers what should we pass on to future generations, when we can’t be sure what they will want or need.

Our third speakers were hosts Museums NorthumberlandJo Raw, Assistant Director and Jennifer Whittle , Duty Manager/Learning Coordinator, took us on a tour through the journey of Environmental Sustainability at Woodhorn Museum, focusing in particular on working in partnership with other museums, benchmarking and monitoring and the work of their Green Team.

The museum was green from the very start with the conversion of the site from colliery to museum being undertaken with environmental sustainability in mind, with its natural setting in the QEII Country Park and with its organisational ethos which juxtaposed the industrial heritage of the site with the need to protect the current environment.  In 2011 they became part of a NE Green Museum Group of initially 7 but rising to 14 museums focused on sharing good practice and working towards the Green Tourism accreditation.  They made a bid to the ACE resilience fund with an ambition to Make Carbon History and a target of 12% reduction in energy use.  In fact their eventual reduction was 18% with the majority of savings being made through management practice rather than financial investment.

As they extend their practice in this area Museums Northumberland have increasingly seen cross-over between their work on environment and on community health and wellbeing.  The staff Green Team gets involved in a range of activity across and beyond the museum which taps into the fact that connection with nature supports both environmental and wellbeing outcomes.

Our final speaker was Eilish Clohessey, Assistant Curator of Making at Derby Museums, who told us about a fascinating exhibition, Energetic Stories.  Part of the Stories of Change project which draws on history, literature and the arts to find more imaginative approaches to current and future energy choices based around stories rather than scientific data.

Derby, like Woodhorn, has its own place in the story of the industrial revolution and the subsequent burning of fossil fuels that is powering our current climate emergency – the Derby Silk Mill though originally water powered was coal-powered for the majority of its working existence.


As part of the Energetic exhibition they undertook a material taxonomy of objects – making an interpretation of the object, the human and environmental cost of its production, what it is used for and what it takes to take care of it.  This focus extended to the installation of the exhibition, re-using as much as possible, spending as little on new materials (including use of carbon-neutral eco-board) and using transport by foot where possible.  The evaluation showed that making small changes had a big impact on energy use and practice.

Pictures of Power, a companion exhibition, raised questions about the human and environmental costs of everyday objects. Visitors were asked to consider the embodied energy in their shoes including materials, where and how they were made and by whom and how they were transported.

Following lunch we had the fantastic opportunity to see the former colliery site transformed by the installations in Coal Forest inspired our ongoing & complex relationship with coal.

Liz Ritson, Public Programme Manager gave us an introduction to the exhibitions programme at Woodhorn, explaining a recent shift from visiting exhibitions to more site and locally specific programmes with themes that run across the museum seasonal event programmes.  For Coal Forest these were Let Go as the season launches in Autumn and the nights begin to draw in. Glow in deep winter with a programme of festive markets, skating, storytelling and family art activities and Grow in springtime, with an art exhibition ‘Into the Woods’ alongside a programme of nature and wildlife inspired walks and talks.  A series of images from the exhibition can be found below.

Before departing the group took some time to explore ideas and themes emerging from the day.  A key observation was that much of the activity that had been shared was dependent on project funding – and so this ‘sustainability’ work was in itself inherently ‘unsustainable’.  On the flip side it did tap into the interests of visitors and community – harnessing their energy and enthusiasm was potentially a renewable resource!    One challenge was how to communicate the work that was being undertaken particulary when changes were ‘behind the scenes’.  There was value in communication such as notices about use of waste water in the toilets at Woodhorn, or the opening up of the construction process in the Energetic exhibition – however balance was needed between messaging and preaching.   One suggestion was to feature blackboards in key locations with rotating messages, rather than adding to visual clutter.  Chester Zoo meanwhile described research into the communication of conservation messages that had found that visitor attention was not diminished by the number of messages.

Happy Museum are grateful to Museums Northumberland for their generous hospitality and to all those who joined us to share and inspire,


Exploring co-production for social change

In January 2019, our Affiliate Chester Zoo hosted a session for the Happy Museum (HM) Community of Practice  exploring the subject of Co-Production for Social Change.

The workshop was an experiment for the HM community – offering the host, Chester Zoo, the opportunity to explore a question of interest to its team, with input from and sharing learning from across the museum and cultural sector. As well as the Discovery and Learning team from Chester Zoo, and contributors from Affiliates  the Museum of Homelessness, Encounters Arts, Battersea Arts Centre, the group, of around 30 participants, included representatives from the National Trust, Curious Minds, Royal Pavilion and Museums (Brighton and Hove), University of Central Lancashire, Storyhouse, Edsential and Leicester Museums.

The day started with a walk through the zoo to the learning centre – with both participants and zoo team enjoying the opportunity to be amongst wildlife on route to work!

Charlotte Smith, Head of Discovery and Learning at Chester Zoo, welcomed participants outlining the zoo’s primary mission, preventing extinction, and how the team was seeking to develop their practice in relation to co-production and broaden and deepen their thinking by connecting with the exciting range of co-production experience in the room.

Participants formed into small groups and interrogated what co-production looks and feels like in practice – sharing real examples and using a listening process to identify what was happening when co-production is in ‘flow’.  We mapped the outcomes of this discussion – here are some of the key factors that we identified as important:

  • Communication – in particular listening
  • Being brave, anticipating and accepting change, and supporting risk-taking
  • The vital importance of time in building relationships
  • Genuine ownership of the process by the participants
  • The value of good and clear process from the start
  • Creating a safe and supportive space
  • Positivity and enthusiasm
  • Clear real world goals and outcomes for all

The group explored what social change we are seeking – and why is it important that it is co-produced.  Whilst Chester Zoo had a clear and identified central mission, many museums’ social purpose was more diffuse and harder to articulate.  There was an interesting dichotomy between ambitions to work with new groups and audiences balanced with the energy and drive that came from self-selecting collaborators.

Values of co-production for social change we identified included:

  • The benefit of more knowledge, experience and perspectives in the room
  • A sense of ownership and deeper commitment from participants
  • The benefit of the knowledge and understanding of participants about what works for and speaks to them
  • A community to support each other leading to more sustainable change

One participant observed ‘co-production is not an option – everything our museum is and has is owned by citizens’ – another commented ‘we cannot effect social change alone’.

Continue reading “Exploring co-production for social change”

Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics – a case study at Derby Museum

Relationships with objects are primary to human growth, development and mental health: they are a core element of our psychological metabolism. In therapy, as in museums, as in life, objects are companions in experience; witnesses to the past and present; connectors to people, places and experiences; devices for communion; for holding on and for letting go; and in their wordlessness are at times, the only means through which we can discover or express otherwise inaccessible concepts and emotions. Objects are signifiers of self and identity, the individual’s relationship with the family/society, and personal power/primal self, and provide the cognitive and phenomenological characteristics necessary for and inherent to meaning making. In object-based therapeutic practices, this primacy of objects in psychological development and meaning-making plays a functional role in fostering the competencies necessary to healing, and maintaining mental health and well-being.

The theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics is a study of the healthful and healing impacts inherent within the dynamic human-object relationship, with implications for museums and mental health experts. This original research coalesces around contemporary psychotherapeutic practice and experiences of people with objects in museum settings, and supports a premise that exhibition experiences are potent and unique in their ability to foster wellbeing and psychological healing.

Researchers associate professor of exhibition design Brenda Cowan, clinical psychotherapist Jason McKeown, and counsellor Ross Laird, share a belief that objects keep us well – often without our knowledge – and through understanding the psychological underpinnings of the human-object relationship, we can in turn see how museums are places of health and healing, and further the vital dialogue between the therapeutic and museum communities. Their theory’s framework presents seven dynamic human-object actions that are inherent, psychologically primary, seemingly universal, and a part of how we by nature, use objects in particular ways that support wellness and promote healing. Simplistically put, the theory suggests that objects are a meaningful and intrinsic part of our lives because they are fundamentally necessary to our mental health. Much like we need certain vitamins and minerals for our bodies to be healthy, so do humans need object engagement, and we can look to specific forms of engagement to identify the ways in which objects give us those necessary nutrients.

The research into the underlying factors of the human-object relationship is contextualized in scholarship and practice in material culture, museum studies, psychology, psychotherapy, and the social sciences, and builds upon foundational theories and applied practice in the attributes and characteristics of objects, object-based experience, the phenomenology of museum engagement, and research in object-based health, well-being, and healing. The theory was initiated by Brenda Cowan in 2015 via field research at an adolescent wilderness therapy facility in North Carolina. The research partnership with Ross Laird and Jason McKeown was formed in 2016, and included empirical qualitative case study work performed with museums in the US, Bosnia-Herzegovina and in 2018, following an introduction from Happy Museum, with Derby Museum and Art Gallery,






The team worked with Andrea Hadley-Johnson (@andreanhj) and her team who were in the throes of developing a new co-produced gallery, Objects of Love, Hope and Fear: a World Collection.  Focusing on the creation of a digital Objects of Love collection, the researchers met with people from the wider Derby community including new arrivals to the city and asked questions about the meaning of loved objects in people’s lives and how connections with those objects can help us maintain health and wellbeing.  In a Case Study with Object Donors, Staff and Visitors to the Derby Museum and Art Gallery you can read more about the observed psychotherapeutic object dynamics of Associating, Synergising, Touching, Composing, Giving/Receiving, Releasing/Unburdening and Touching.  Ross Laird also wrote this interesting blog about the work.

The case studies in all four museums explored object engagement with everyday and mundane objects, objects from nature, and objects in museums, and included a broad range of participants including museum object donors, visitors, curators, restoration specialists, staff, administrators, volunteers, historians, media experts, and museum professionals. The sample included long term residents of the various museum communities, international tourists, refugees, visiting museum professionals, students and immigrants. The work continues with the development of the theory’s framework as a tool for evaluating the healthful impacts of exhibition and audience experiences, and as an instrument in innovative therapeutic practice in a variety of settings.

If you would like to read more about this research or contact Brenda Cowan and her colleagues direct here is her website dedicated to the framework: www.psychotherapeuticobjectdynamics.com

You can’t do that in a Museum!

We hear from Rowan Guthrie and Jane Cockcroft about their experience of playful interventions at the Ashmolean

The Ashmolean Museum is an affiliate of the Happy Museum. Over the last year, we have been involved in a series of training days which have helped to shape our thinking about the importance and potential of play in the museum.

We were invited to take part in the Occuplay Project, which asked museums to experiment with pop up playful activities, ‘occuplaytions,’ to involve both visitors and staff.  These arrived as a series of ‘prompts’ emailed to us weekly with suggestions for playful activities, some of which we tried out. We welcomed the opportunity to be part of this project, as it has allowed us to experiment with new approaches, and reflect upon and question our own style of practice and relationship with play. This process has provoked lots of animated conversations with colleagues, and perhaps stimulated more questions than it has answered!

Time travel

This prompt was for museum staff.  The task was to go ‘back to the future’ and draw and label a map of a place they enjoyed playing in as children. Knowing how busy everyone is we decided to use the game as an excuse to visit numerous departments of our large museum and directly invite staff to take part. The opportunity seemed too good to miss to spread the word about the project. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to interact with colleagues in this way, and in general, staff reacted positively and enjoyed recalling childhood memories of play. This process allowed them to re-connect with the importance of play, and felt like a boost to the wellbeing of all concerned. But this was not true of every encounter.  Although supportive of the project, a few colleagues were reluctant to take part, not wanting to re-visit difficult memories of childhood.  We became very aware that we were on sensitive ground.

Overall however, while the mixing of professional and personal can sometimes jarr at work, this game was a breath of fresh air. It has made us consider how important playful interventions can be to peoples’ wellbeing at work. Work is a serious business, but trying something different can lighten the load and break down barriers.


The next prompt was for an impromptu hopscotch game for visitors to interact with. Keen to test different museum spaces, we decided draw one with chalk outside our main entrance, and another with masking tape inside in a busy carpeted area of the museum. The Playwork Principles state that children “determine and control the content and intent of their play, by following their own instincts, ideas and interests, in their own way for their own reasons.” We therefore simply set these up and observed from a distance. We didn’t put out any signage or actively direct people to the hopscotch. Our main observation was that most people either didn’t see, or ignored and avoided the hopscotch. A few playful adults hopped over it on their way, with a smile. A handful of children played with it for extended periods. One adult looked at it, shrugging and tutting disapprovingly as she walked past. It became clear that the response was very mixed. Some visitors were uncomfortable or confused, or simply didn’t register the game at all. Others responded positively, such as a large group of international tourists who played together animatedly for ten minutes, talking and laughing together.  Perhaps the stereotype of the reserved British public was a factor?

This exercise prompted us reflect upon the idea that play is always best when undirected. We suspect the majority of people need some direction, even ‘permission’ to play. Museum spaces can feel serious, and this is a public perception which are aware of.  While we constantly try to break down barriers by creating a more relaxed environment, is it too much of a leap to expect spontaneous play from all our visitors?

Topsy Turvy World

This prompt involved playing around with furniture in the gallery to make an interesting space for visitors to interact with. We decided to put some chairs a row of pairs, to imitate seats on a bus or train, thinking that children might be inspired to play with them. We also put down a large rug to create a place to lie or sit. We set this up next to our family activity trolley in a prominent visible space.  This was without doubt the least successful activity as hardly anyone interacted with the space we created. A member of staff commented that people were avoiding the area as it looked ‘set up’ for a group to work in, for a scheduled activity. People were just not used to encountering playfully arranged furniture and didn’t realise it was for them. Signage inviting people to ‘You can play in this area’ might have helped give people the nudge they needed. We wonder too whether we should have run this on a day when more families were in the museum. It prompted us to question again whether ‘play for plays sake’ is currently quite the right fit for our museum. We aim to make our activities fun and as ‘free’ as possible, but also as a means to encourage meaningful engagement with our collections. While we fully appreciate the value of undirected play we also question investing our time and resource into creating this style of activity when there is abundant inspiration for play linked to our collections. We have learnt a lot from pushing the boundaries, but ultimately we will still lean towards focusing play around museum learning.

You can’t do that in a Museum!

This prompt was a reflective exercise, in which we were asked to imagine and risk assess an activity that would be ‘risky’ for us. Instead of focusing on potentially negative risk, we were asked to consider how the benefits of these activities might justify the risk.  From the very start of this process, we became big fans of the whole idea of ‘risk benefit’. We decided to risk assess a hypothetical ‘Beautiful Bottoms’ tour of the museum for families, based on our experience of the hilarity nudity inspires in many children.  When considering how to mitigate the risk of offense or sensitive and problematic discussions about sexuality we listed ‘Plan our tactics/responses should children want to talk about other aspects of nudity which they spot’ and ‘respond thoughtfully and with preparedness for any complaints or offence caused’. Weighed against the negative risks, we felt the principal risk benefit would be that ‘the use of a ‘rude’ silly theme will capture childrens attention and allow them to feel relaxed about their reactions to nudity in our objects and paintings.’

We will continue to use the ‘Risk Benefit’ approach when planning new and innovative activities and experiences for our visitors. We are not quite ready to try out our Bottoms tour for real, much to the disappointment of a colleague who we chatted to when writing the risk assessment, but we are now more open to taking risk with our activities!

Too playful for us!

Some of the prompts were a step too far for us. For example, ‘Whispers’ prompted us send nonsense sentences around the museum, to be passed between staff, visitors etc. We were then asked to observe the affect. We felt this would make staff and visitors feel uncomfortable so decided to skip this activity.

To conclude…

We are really grateful to the Happy Museum for inviting us to do this project and mentoring us throughout. It was great to try new things, and prioritise trying out playful experiments.  Although we have come away from the experience with lots of questions, it has provided us with an invaluable opportunity to reflect upon the way we work, consider how we might try new approaches in the future, and to understand ourselves better.

Rowan Guthrie and Jane Cockcroft are Family Learning (Jobshare) for the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford     https://www.ashmolean.org/

We can be contacted at families@ashmus.ox.ac.uk

Read more about Happy Museum’s work on Play in museums.


Museums and the sustainable palm oil challenge

The news has been full of stories about palm oil – with the Rang Tan video going viral and many petitions and campaigns being set up in response.

We wondered how museums could respond.

Our Affiliate, Chester Zoo, recently blogged about the work they have done in their organisation, and with their community campaigning for sustainable palm oil, so we contacted them to ask for their advice.

Chester Zoo’s position, which is shared by many orangutan conservation and environmental NGOs, is to support sustainable palm oil.   They believe that a boycott on all palm oil is likely to shift the problem elsewhere and drive demand for other less efficient oils – which require more land to produce. By driving demand for sustainably produced palm oil we can be part of the solution.

If you are thinking about how your museum could respond – Chester Zoo have created information and resources to support individual, community, organisational and city-wide responses.  They have a toolkit which organisations can use to audit their own supply chain, as well as a shopping list of Brands that contain CSPO.  Check out the Sustainable Palm Oil Challenge section on their website.

If your museum is taking up the challenge do let us know!

Digital social purpose, active citizenship and democracy

In early 2018 Happy Museum joined Culture24, 64 Million Artists and Battersea Arts Centre on Lets Get Real 6 as partners in an action research project investigating the impact of digital technologies on social impact in Museums.    Inspired by a blog written by Sejul Malde of Culture24 Museums doing digital and museums doing good — can we forge a connection?

We were excited by the opportunity to explore the Happy Museum Project’s thinking and ethos in a digital sphere. and in particular to exploring two of our principles, Be an Active Citizen and Pursue Mutual Relationships, through a digital lens.

As the project draws to a close, Hilary Jennings, Director of Happy Museum reflects on how a focus on active citizenship impacted on digital and analogue practice.   Meanwhile Jo Hunter of 64 Million Artists explores how thinking digitally might help us act democratically.

Digital platforms expanded reach and connection, building links between people and cultural organisations, and bringing new insights and agency to the work of these organisations.

Report of the 2018 Happy Museum Symposium




Between 24 and 26 April over 60 members of the Happy Museum community of practice gathered with the HM team, trustees, partners and supporters in the beautiful setting of Stoke Rochford Hall in Grantham.  The Happy Museum fourth symposium was a chance to bring together our growing Community of Practice, share learning from our seven year journey so far – and consider together the direction for the years ahead.

Read our full report of the event and discussions below…



Canterbury museum explores air pollution with it’s community

Breathing Canterbury

Happy Museum Affiliate the Beaney House of Art & Knowledge in Canterbury has commissioned a project and exhibition, Breathing Canterbury, exploring the effects of air pollution on Canterbury and beyond.  The Beaney commissioned an artist/facilitator, Trudi Field, to work with local partners to create exhibits to raise awareness of this important issue.

Workshop participants included:

  • Art31

  • Barton Court Grammar School,

  • Canterbury and District Early Years Projects

  • Canterbury City Council Environmental Health Department, working with the 2 local primary schools most seriously affected by air pollution

  • Centre for Health Services Studies (CHSS), University of Kent at Canterbury

  • Knot the Knit Twits

Breathing Canterbury was created in response to The Beaney’s Happy Museum Affiliateship –  and the Season for Change, an initiative supporting the theme that ‘We believe that the creative community is uniquely placed to transform the conversation around climate change and translate it into action.’

From June to December 2018, more than 200 arts and cultural organisations across the UK are creating events, performances and conversations to inspire creative action on climate change.  The Season will coincide with the landmark UN Climate of Parties ‘COP24’ talks taking place in December, which is critical in meeting the targets of the Paris Agreement.  Season for Change is led by Julie’s Bicycle and Artsadmin, and was initiated from the What Next? movement in association with Battersea Arts Centre. For more information visit https://www.seasonforchange.org.uk

The Beaney hope that the exhibition inspires participants and visitors alike to consider how to help improve the quality of our air!

Say it in Clay

SAY IT IN CLAY was a session led by Lucy Neal and Michael Martin from Encounters at the Happy Museum’s 4th Symposium.  The session’s genesis lay in previous collaborations between Happy Museum and Clayground Collective – and in particular a 2015 session where a small group of museum practitioners gathered on a canal boat in Kings Cross for an afternoon investigating and experimenting with the links between museum collections and our relationship with the material world – further investigated in this article by Hilary Jennings.   The conversation had expanded to include Happy Museum Affiliate, Encounters Arts, engaging with a challenge currently facing museums, the decommissioning of objects and pottery fragments or ‘sherds’ in particular.

Their stories need ‘decommissioning’ also. In case of sherds – we don’t always have their stories; story and object have become separated. Clay is a traditional and universal material, found everywhere whilst also being at the cutting edge of new technologies. Such is the incredible longevity of objects made in clay – if there’s something you wish to say to last 1000s of years into the future, it’s worth saying it in clay.


In Stoke Rochford’s beautiful conservatory we had assembled 50 + aprons, teatowels, clay tools along with buckets, sponges, pottery sherds and 8 large (and heavy) bags of school buff clay.  With help from Alice Briggs from Ceredigion Museum and Megan de Silva from Monmouthshire Museums, participants were invited to sit in pairs at tables laid out with materials and tools.

Participants were invited, in pairs, to:

  1. Tell a story to each other about clay
  2. Consider a pottery sherd – how old? What could it be from?
  3. Using the sherd as a starting point, make (from clay) a new imagined ‘whole’ object with a focus on something you would like to pass onto future generations.
  4. Tell a new imagined story – starting with the object and telling its story or starting with the story and making the object
  5. Create an interpretation and write up on a card to display alongside your object. What do we know of this object? Where was it found? Where is it now?

After an energetic 30 minutes of talking, engaging and making, around 25 objects were ready for display in an imaginary Say It In Clay Exhibition which organised itself in minutes on tables pulled together in the centre of the conservatory. Creative making combined with succinct stories and interpretations.  Museum practitioners proved themselves active stewards of past, present and future.  ‘Earth’ narratives were prominent with voice given in the making to the ‘real’ stories of species extinction and human disregard for future generations.

















Here are a few of the interpretation display cards

April 2018

This clay model is the last remaining record of an extinct bumblebee  ‘Bombidrus fragmentus’ driven to extinction by its reaction to telephone signals interfering with its natural communication. The only known pollinator of bananas this food will die with it.

Soft-skulled jabberwacky


Ruined City of San Mort de Necro (2001)

In 1971 a doomed city was built deep in the Brazilian rainforest, San Mort de Necro. This development tragically wiped out the soft-skulled jabberwacky, when 20 birds collided into buildings on a daily basis. By 1994, the bird was extinct. As the bird lived on mosquitos, malaria increased by 2,400% It wiped out all residents. In 2001 the city was empty.

Throwaway Culture

A series of used and disposable cups

We learn a lot about our values and culture from what we throw away

Clay is the original disposable material, can we undo the damage caused by transposing this ancient practice into a world with modern materials?



Made byYarls Wood detainee. ‘I need a key to get out of here and a key for a new home’ This person is currently detailed indefinitely under UK Law

Clay 1

Discovered in 2018 in present day New Zealand these clay objects are in fact clay brains. Bamboozled scientists are not entirely sure, but it is believed that they point to the existence of a technologically sophisticated clay-based civilisation whose use of clay was far more advanced than the 21st century’s use of silicon. This discovery paved the way for a clay1 revolution with current clay based technology modelled on the archetypes of these two brains.










We’d hoped the session would:

  1. Engage all participants and guests irrespective of their familiarity with the Happy Museum,
  2. Enable a member of the Happy Museum Community of Practice (Encounters) to lead a symposium session.
  3. Bring a ‘maker’ dimension to the event – taking it beyond talking, language, words: a ‘think, feel, do’ dimension.
  4. Allow for different ways of connecting and play, drawing on innate collective and creativity of the group.
  5. Engage with a topical challenge and opportunity – Museum decommissioning – in a creative and positive way.
  6. To work with and create objects in material common to many museum collections: clay.

We hope the session could lay groundwork for continuing explorations

For more about our collaborators:

Clayground Collective http://www.claygroundcollective.org and their new book Clay in Common a project book for schools, museums,

Encounters Arts http://encounters-arts.org.ukgalleries, libraries, and artists and clay activists everywhere.

Heritage Futures’ Profusion Project (run by Shelley Castle – Encounters Museum of Now) https://heritage-futures.org/profusion/ at Torre Abbey with Dr Jennie Morgan, anthropologist from Department of Sociology, University of York: The Human Bower asking the public ‘What would you keep for the future?’ http://encounters-arts.org.uk/news