Symposium 2013 – blog by Ailsa Strachan

A personal perspective from Ailsa Strachan of Manchester Museum

This year’s symposium felt different to last year’s. Last year, I was part of a new commission. Everything was new and uncertain and I didn’t really know what to expect. I went to the symposium thinking sustainability wasn’t really related to our project: happiness and wellbeing, yes, but I didn’t think the sustainability aspect really fitted. By the time I left, my view of the purpose of the Happy Museum had totally changed and I began to ‘think differently’. I felt ready to spread the word, to talk about the project to as many people as possible, as often as possible. The importance of every element of the Happy Museum was reinforced: how could I have ever thought that sustainability wasn’t a factor when it is impossible to be happy and well in a world that has no future? The range of speakers had opened my eyes to the importance of the wider social and environmental aims of Happy Museum.

I was asked to attend this year’s symposium with the purpose of producing a report alongside another Happy Museum commission colleague. At first, I wasn’t sure how my dual role as a commissioned project team member and report-writer would work. I soon realised the way to get the most out of the symposium was as a commission. I remembered leaving the last symposium feeling the benefit of time to reflect on what we were doing, work with our peers to gain knowledge and inspiration, and the chance to interrogate other commissions and be interrogated in return, was invaluable to our project and I didn’t want to miss out on that.

This year, many talked about the need to develop a language to share. The opportunity for self-reflection in a neutral space and the ability to talk freely about the bigger issues concerning our projects reinforced how important it is to talk about the project and the symposium left me confident and equipped to share. The Happy Museum team has worked hard to develop a community of practice and this has gone a long was to improving knowledge and confidence when talking about the wider project. All of the commissions can talk about their individual projects with confidence and passion but the symposium is a great opportunity for everyone to develop their understanding of the bigger picture- the inspiration behind the Happy Museum and how we can take it forward.

The word ‘legitimacy’ kept being mentioned- legitimacy to bend the rules. This resonated with me because our project has always been experimental- turning Manchester Museum museum into a space for play always required somewhat of an open mind and the same applies for some of the other commissions who are reimagining the role of their museum. As the project commissions have increased there is a stronger feeling that what we are doing really matters and is a powerful model that is still growing.  Marilyn from The Lightbox said ‘the Happy Museum is a powerful model as no one can say it doesn’t apply to them’.

In Tony’s blog The Happy Museum, What We’ve Learnt so Far, he highlights one of the greatest impacts as being on individuals rather than organisations. This I can relate to- I had only been working at Manchester Museum for a few months when work began on our Playful Museum project. Being involved from such an early stage in both the project and my new role, I was inspired by the ‘ambition to inspire museums to reimagine their role’. For me, the symposium reflected Tony’s suggestion that the greatest impact has been on individuals. For our report, we decided to interview some of our fellow commissions at various intervals over the 2 days. After the symposium, back at work, I started to transcribe all of the interviews I’d recorded and it became clear how much everyone has been affected. The excitement and enthusiasm felt by everyone, regardless of how busy they are, the uncertainty of where projects might go next and whether there will even be another round of Happy Museum projects, none of it seems to matter, or perhaps it’s such resilience that really does matter, when you’re involved in a project where you really are encouraged to feel that as individuals, you can make the difference.