Share aggressively, steal with pride and none is as smart as all of us. It was under the guidance of these messages that the Happy Museum Project held its 2 day conference at Stoke Rochford Hall, Grantham. The Happy Museum Project (HMP) re-imagines what museums can be and prompts both museum professionals and audiences to rethink the role of the arts and heritage. A large chunk of this ethos involves upholding well-being and environmental sustainability for the sector as a whole. The conference was an opportunity for teams from Happy Museum commissioned projects to come together from across the UK and share their experiences and practices with other Happy Museum advocates and heritage professionals. This conference in particular addressed how the HMP can now, after 3 rounds of funding, shape itself for future happy museums and strengthen its offer to museums and their projects.
For 2 days the walls of Stoke Rochford contained an incredible amount of skill, knowledge and creativity, all to be shared out in generous doses. The conference was a welcome hiatus to the day-to-day routine, enabling the group to stop, step-back and reflect.
And so, put 60 plus heritage professionals and creatives in a large and beautiful library, throw in some leading expertise, outstanding passion and a profusion of post-it-notes and something interesting is going to happen. I have just about managed, with difficulty, to whittle down 5 key things I’ll be taking away from the 2 days.
1. Stealing is good. You know those adverts where someone leaves their keys or laptop on view in a window, and some sneaky character creeps up and says thank you, how generous. If this were an advert for museums it would be encouraging us to do this more (and the conference would consist of 50% foolish home-owners and 50% sneaky characters). This was a chance to put all the knowledge, skills and ideas we possessed on a plate, ready to go, maybe with extra mayo, by an open window for easy access (perhaps with a colourful sign written in Berol marker pen – what would a conference be without a good marker pen?). In return, we could grab hold of what others had on offer. Wasn’t it Jean-Luc Godard who said “It’s not where you take things from. It’s where you take them to” ?
2. What does ‘innovation’ actually mean? The panel discussion chaired by Maurice Davies included representatives from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Heritage Lottery Fund, CyMAL and National Trust Scotland. What external changes had the audience experienced over the past few years? How had societal and political pressures influenced their work and projects? The answers ranged from the bad, with less funding and shifts in governmental agenda, to the good, with more ‘business focused’ management models and stronger audience development strategies.
PHF’s Regis Cochefert questioned the sector’s enduring efforts towards ‘innovation’. He explained the dangers of the sector’s permanent concern for innovation, when actually we just ‘need to do what we need to do’. Museums need to pay wages, run a business and support their volunteers – this may not be sexy, but it’s right. For a funder, a museum or a project has to show that it is committed and prepared for these core requirements. ‘Innovation’ is not an end in itself. Innovation, if you’re lucky, is a product of those less sexy but key commitments and activities. The more successful these are, the closer a project might get to innovation. HLF Policy Advisor Miranda Stearn added ‘Don’t bring a project round from what it should be, to what you think the funder wants to see. HLF want to see careful thought.’
3. Be on the court. Being surrounded by so many creative projects really highlighted how many people are out there putting themselves on the centre court of the sector. Nick Winterbotham (Chair of GEM, Group for Education in Museums) had several food-for-thoughts over the 2 days and this was one of them. Don’t just cheer from the sidelines, but stand up on the court for yourself – and perhaps others will cheer for you. Be an agent for change. Think Gandhi’s “Be the change…” (Though, disappointingly, the New York Times tells me there’s no actual record of Gandhi saying those exact words. No matter. There is record of him saying ‘We need not wait to see what others do’ – this will do just as well.)
Another core message of the conference, that happens to be one of my mantras; attitudes are infectious. A Happy Museum Project is about creating an environment that is enjoyable to work in and, dare I say it, a happy medium between professional and personal life. This might sound idealistic and yes, there are important (and in too many cases, necessary) reasons for keeping personal and professional life separate. But when it comes to attitude and behaviour at work, can we all just a little bit more…human?
4. Sustainability and Legacy. It’s wonderful to sit around in a room hearing about lots of inspiring people doing inspiring things while drinking coffee and eating custard creams. But very central to the core of the conference was how the Happy Museum Project can go forward and continue to build strength within the sector and continue supporting its projects. We discussed the lasting impacts of the commissions upon the museum staff, its volunteers and audiences, as well as upon its funders. Many of us wanted to demystify the hindsight of the funder – How does the HLF for example, view a commission once it is complete? How does the Paul Hamlyn Foundation evaluate the effectiveness of its funding decisions? And how do museums measure and record the success of a project? The Happy Museum’s response to these questions is a new body of research looking at how to ‘Measure what Matters’, explained at the conference by HMP evaluator Mandy Barnett. Based on principles originating from the work of the New Economics Foundation, it investigates how value for money can be shown by looking at the social return on investment. Core to this process is looking beyond GDP – a measurement of prosperity which, as Mike Zeidler from Happy City Bristol pointed out, actually requires us to be unhappy! We are obsessed with growth. We want to grow our bank accounts, our assets, even our buildings are getting bigger (but questionably better). We are supposed to be going out and spending more, but we can’t be happy consumers if we don’t want to consume. Spend spend spend is not healthy. The standard of living that GDP claims to determine is from a material perspective, which says nothing for actual societal well-being.
5. Post-it notes are the future.
Nabokov wrote Lolita on index cards, Capote favoured a very particular yellow paper whilst Dickens liked blue, JK wrote on napkins (a likely story). The Happy Museum Project is partial to the post-it. Never has such revolution been noted on the humble post-it. Scribbles of inspiration stuck on walls, noticeboards and tables, every now and then spontaneously cascading to the ground under the weight of their profundity. The profusion of post-its brought forth a varied account of the top priorities in museums and heritage today, from the need for more flexible and creative partnerships to triple bottom line accounting.
When we all arrived at Stoke Rochford it was made clear that by the end of the conference every attendee should have something to action on return to their museum (yes I did just use action as a verb. sorry.) And, after the discussions, presentations, workshops and general atmosphere of the event, it was impossible to go away empty handed.
Frances Reed is a Sustainability Trainee at the Garden Museum. The Garden Museum were recipients of Happy Museum funding for their project entitled, Flowers for Love and Money.
*This blog was originally posted on the Creative Commentary blog.