Since 2011 Happy Museum (HM) has stimulated and supported museum practice that places wellbeing within an environmental and future-facing frame, rethinking the role that museums can play in creating more resilient people, places and planet. Core to our work is the principle that human wellbeing now depends on tackling pressing global challenges: resource depletion, climate change, biodiversity loss, inequality and social injustice. In this challenging context, museums and cultural organisations are responding rapidly by increasing their work on social wellbeing, with HM providing peer-led support for the challenges this brings. Through action research, academic research, peer networking and training, HM has worked directly with over 50 museums in the UK and connected with many more through events and an online presence which stretches globally.
The project was founded in 2011 by Tony Butler, then Director of the Museum of East Anglian Life. Seeing firsthand the benefits to his community of engaging with a wide range of practical projects at the museum he proposed that a focus on societal wellbeing, on what truly makes communities thrive both now and for the future, might provide a challenge to dominant societal paradigms around economic growth, individualism and over-consumption – and that in this frame, museums might have much to offer.
From the outset holding such a broad frame was challenging. Happy Museum, whilst a catchy and memorable title encouraged some to dismiss the project as lightweight, fluffy, or promoting individual happiness as part of a growing wellbeing ‘industry’. Wellbeing focused work was a relatively new field in museums – though one that was gaining momentum – but even close collaborators found the broader framing a challenge. We saw ourselves as a ‘Trojan Horse’ – wheeled in with a happy smile but opening up space for discussions about wider and challenging global issues.
Beyond the cultural sector, others were working in the same frame. Founded in Bristol in 2010, Happy City puts the wellbeing of current and future generations at the centre of city life and this year launched a UK thriving places index. In one of our early commissions The Royal Western Academy worked with Happy City to help put wellbeing and sustainability at the heart of a review and redevelopment of the museum.
A revolution was also underway in Economic thinking and teaching. A worldwide movement of students challenged the dominance of narrow free-market theories taught in top universities as a threat to the world’s ability to confront challenges like climate change. Many challenged the mantra of growth and explored new economic paradigms – including the wonderful Doughnut Economics of Kate Raworth who spoke to a sell out audience at the LSE stating that ‘we have economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive, we need economies that “make us thrive, whether or not they grow”..
Meanwhile in 2015 the Welsh Government introduced the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act to give ‘ambition, permission and legal obligation to improve our social, cultural and environmental wellbeing’. With funding from the Wales Federation, we worked with six museums to map and demonstrate how museums work to fulfil the breadth of the Goals of the Wellbeing Act.
At the same time, within the cultural sector the wellbeing agenda was gaining momentum – the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts Health and Wellbeing was formed in 2014 with the Alliance for Museums Health and Wellbeing (now Culture Health and Wellbeing Alliance) and the AHRC funded UCL Museums on Prescription forming in 2015 whilst the 2016 the Museums Association Conference took Health and Wellbeing as one of its three key themes.
Happy Museum combines practical action with evaluation and research. Starting with a 2012 paper the Happy Museum, a Tale of How it Could Turn Out Alright, we offered a provocation to museums to undertake action research, experimenting and innovating with Happy Museum thinking to develop our six Principles . Between 2012 and 2015, supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Arts Council, we funded 22 projects experimenting with ideas as diverse as a comedian in residence in a mining museum, a co-created gallery putting making at the centre of a museum, and a programme experimenting with play in a university museum.
Over time we saw an evolution in the work of our Community of Practice. Initial responses were overwhelmingly focused on wellbeing with fewer references to environmental issues and at times unconnected to the core proposal. Over time, however environmental themes became more prevalent, more explicit and more synergous. Commissions such as the Waste Not exhibition at the Lightbox celebrated the value of everyday objects – from an old sewing machine to a toilet brush – challenging our attitudes to waste and planned obsolescence. Torquay museum engaged young sustainability champions in carbon reduction and advocacy meanwhile Ceredigion museum partnered with a local woodland trust to train young people in craft and enterprise skills to make a range of sustainable wooden objects for sale in the museum shop.
In 2015 we launched a longitudinal 5-Year Study with of six museums seeking to embed Happy Museum practice over time, and in 2017 expanded our reach to work with fifteen Affiliates – working beyond museums to include a zoo, an arts organisation and a heritage team embedded in a social enterprise tackling poverty. By this time organisations were expressing broader visions such as a desire to ‘frame well-being in the context of environmental and social change’, to engage with ‘ethical grand challenges’ and explore how museums ‘help tackle the big issues that affect society within a turbulent and unpredictable world’.
Meanwhile the UK cultural sector was engaging more widely with sustainability. Supported by organisations like Julie’s Bicycle, Platform, Cape Farewell and Tipping Point and with ACE becoming the first arts organisation in the world to include environmental measurements in its funding requirements – organisations and individuals were responding creatively to the need to tackle carbon emissions and to communicate climate change with audiences and communities. Worldwide, museums were stepping up to the challenge with the formation of groups such as the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice and the Museums and Climate Change Network.
The Happy Museum set out with big ambitions for museums to change the world but in tackling challenges such as climate change, with its vast global and temporal scale, there are no silver bullets and though the pace of change may feel slow and imperceptible, significant shifts can appear as if from nowhere, like the recent upsurge in public awareness of the dangerous impact of plastic waste. At the outset we anticipated the change in museum practice would be organisational, event hierarchical – however it soon became clear that impacts were often individual, indeed personal. We shifted focus – building on our principle Be an Active Citizen our museums encourage active involvement and engagement from visitors, volunteers and staff alike. Wherever possible we have work with teams from across and beyond the museum, breaking down traditional silos and barriers of ‘expertise’. Research shows that when we see ourselves as citizens, and understand our common values, we are more likely to participate, volunteer and come together to make society stronger and more resilient.
Through this process of action learning and experimentation across a wide range of museum practice we have learnt much about the potential of museums:
- They offer invitation to shared public space at a time when the public realm is being diminished and challenged both in real and virtual terms.
- Museums are largely trusted institutions in a time of fake news and exploitative big data.
- They are places for encounter where we can meet and connect beyond our immediate social bubble – where we can share our commonalities and understand our differences.
- Museums are places to experience awe and wonder – feelings that research shows us help us to understand ourselves as communal and pro-social beings.
- They are places where we can reflect upon our past and apply this to imagining different futures.
- Museums are places full of humanity and human stories; they place that contribute to our wellbeing both individually and communally.
- Museums are ideally placed to show us our potential for change, our collections evidence the adaptability of the human race and show the enormous societal shifts we are capable of, shifts in energy, production, consumption, transport, arts and culture as well as in ethics and morals
The Happy Museum is a small initiative amongst many, many others, in the cultural sector and beyond, responding in a multitude of ways to the challenges that face us. As we head towards 2020 and the end of our current 5-Year Programme, Happy Museum will seek to be a space to experiment with museum practice, through principles of care, inclusion and collaboration, in this critical time of change.
This text is taken from an introduction given by Hilary Jennings to the Happy Museum 4th Symposium in April 2018 and a presentation to the Manchester Museums and Climate Change Conference in March 2018.