In August 2014, Reading Museum received a second commission from the Happy Museum to build on the earlier success of its Revealing Reading’s Hidden Histories project (also, see here). The new project aims to provoke debate and active citizenship, facing up to the town’s social and environmental challenges. Here project leader, Brendan Carr, gives an account of outcomes to date.
Over the past twenty years, listeners to commercial radio in Reading have developed an affectionate attachment to one particular jingle, which goes:
‘For the best beds in Reading the place to be heading is Reading Bedding: Reading Bedding for the best beds in Reading!”
It may be corny but it’s a daily message which sticks; part of the soundscape, as familiar as the thudding bass notes and muffled melodies which float through the air every August Bank Holiday, when the Festival rolls into town.
By giving our Happy Museum project the title ‘Where’s Reading Heading?’ we make an in-joke, however our intent is serious. We want to help prevent Reading from sleep walking into an unhappy future but we still want to be playful and attuned to the town’s popular culture and spirit. This is not easy, the ecological challenges and socio-economic problems that places like Reading face are complex and difficult; we all need to be putting our thinking caps on to help resolve them.
Reading Museum’s part in the solution can be found by pursuing a Happy Museum approach to promoting community engagement with the issues at stake. This is allied to Transition Town thinking and all about research, creativity and action. Something that museums, with their audience and their networks of artists, academics, business people and community leaders are ideally placed to instigate. It should not be all doom and gloom; the future is something we create, it is in our hands.
The basis for the project has also been influenced by the Museums Change Lives agenda and in developing the scheme I had the benefit of being part of the inaugural Museum Association Transformers programme which encourages museum professionals to create degrees of radical change in their organisations. Our Happy Museum project’s Story of Change vision statement is radical, it reads as follows:
“Reading Museum is a trusted advocate and influential agency through which communities are active in shaping public policies that advance well-being within a sustainable environment”
The Happy Museum project is about action research and this allows scope for taking the notion that museums change lives, a little further. We wanted to find out if a museum could generate the actions that influence public policies which change lives. Like many English towns and cities Reading faces a critical issue. Its population has increased by 9% in the last decade and is projected to grow by a further 16% by 2050, the year by which the UK has committed to have reduced its carbon emission by 80%. Creating a future environment in which the entire town’s people can flourish and lead happy lives in a manner that does not cost the earth is a huge challenge, yet not all communities of people within the town are aware of current debates or active in finding solutions.
Narrowing the Gaps
So ‘Where’s Reading Heading?’ looks at the past, present and future development of Reading with the objective of provoking debate amongst residents of all backgrounds. We want to generate conversations and active citizenship to address the question of how Reading can sustain its growing population and build a successful low carbon economy whilst Narrowing the Gaps between different sectors in our communities.
To provoke this activity, the project’s community focus group decided to commission Russell Alsop of the local Ginger & Pickles production company to make a Documentary Film which, through the museum’s agency, draws together the views and knowledge of a widespread group of Reading people. This has included school pupils, politicians, academics, business people, ecologists, planners, architects and residents from local neighbourhoods.
This month, Alsop’s ‘Director’s Cut’ was put before a preview audience who we surveyed to determine whether the film was fit for its purpose. On the whole the response to the survey was positive and encouraging, so we have now put our film into the public domain, using social media to begin the process of dissemination. Adding to this, radio style podcasts of all the interviews carried out through the course of the research have been made available on the Project’s Online Platforms together with hyperlinks signposting to relevant partner organisations through whom active citizenship can be harnessed.
The film preview survey results have indicated that watching the film will have an uplifting impact on feelings of well-being for 24% of viewers. The results also showed that we can estimate that the film will make 93% of viewers feel generally positive about Reading’s history and heritage, while 68% of its viewers will have their awareness of the social and environmental issues facing Reading increased. The film was considered to be provocative by almost 80% of its previewers and no one that we asked felt it would not have capacity for generating debate about the issues. Of those who previewed the film, 96% said that it would either definitely (48.2%) or might (48.2%) provoke others into action to meet the environmental and social challenges facing the town.
Project partners and participants have also commented that they have shifted their perceptions of Reading Museum, seeing it now as a place through which activism can take place:
- ‘A museum being provocative and calling to action was something I didn’t expect, that’s not something curators are supposed to do! The possible scenarios for Reading in the future are scary, there are many dangers but if the museum project can show there are also choices, then that’s a good thing, exciting.’
Dave Richards, Reading International Solidarity Centre
- ‘The Happy Museums project on ‘Where’s Reading Heading’ helps enrich the continuing ‘Reading 2050’ programme of work in which the University of Reading is a key partner. By offering a provocative view of the future, and helping us understand the past, present and future of Reading, the project expands and extends Reading Museum’s sustainability outreach role in the wider community so that Reading people can see how our shared urban future might evolve.’
Professor Tim Dixon, Chair in Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment University of Reading
Very promising relationships have emerged through the opportunity that the project has presented for the museum to engage with local organisations including Reading International Solidarity Centre ; IMUSE ; Nature Nuture ; Berkshire Local Nature Partnership ; Greater Reading Environmental Network ; Reading Climate Change Centre ; The Walker Institute and Reading Sustainability Centre. This gives good reason for optimism that further related activity can be developed to pursue Happy Museum philosophy in our work and imbed the museum as an agency in Reading for understanding and promoting care of the environment.
Importantly the project output communicates to the council and senior officers that the museum has power to relay important messages, speaking at all levels of community. Our close collaboration with the Reading 2050 initiative through the course of the project has also demonstrated to our core funder that the museum is now better recognised as having relevance in the wider arena and has the capacity for diversifying the scope of its work. I hope this alters any perception budget holders may have of the museum from being ‘Nice to Have’ to being ‘Need to Use’.