Museums, materials and materialism

What does exploration of our relationship with the material world offer to museum practice?

In the light of global challenges such as climate change, resource scarcity and financial instability, Happy Museum challenges museums to rise to the challenge of supporting our transition to a higher-wellbeing, lower consumption society.

We have arguably entered a new geological era – the Anthropocene – an era defined by the impact of humanity on our ecosystem, an impact which includes climate change, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, and resource depletion. Underpinning many of these damaging impacts is the exponential growth in our levels of consumption which are driving us beyond the natural limits of our planet. Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s consumption of resources in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. Since 2000, overshoot has grown, according to the Global Footprint Network’s calculations and has moved forward from early October in 2000 to August 19th in 2015.

Throughout history our happiness and sense of worth has been bound up with our material wealth. The multitude of fabulous objects in our museum collections are testament to this – from the rough earthenware pot to the delicate porcelain vase, the simple stone axe to the 3D printer: whether for use, ornament, or both, humans have always been more than a little in love with material stuff.

However it could be argued that our connection with objects and the material world has become fractured. We have fallen wholesale for the seductive message that we must have more and more, better and better, faster and faster – our love of the disposable, and the rise of built in obsolescence leads to vast amounts of waste. Nearly 500 thousand cell phones and are thrown away every day in the U.S alone.

Museums can take some comfort from being, in many cases, a sanctuary from commercial messages – as the original Happy Museum Paper identifies: “Notwithstanding the ubiquitous gift shop strategically positioned by the exit, museums have little to ‘sell’ to their visitors but understanding and enjoyment.” However there is no question that we live in a society dominated by consumerism and by messages of consumption with individuals being exposed to between 1000 and 5000 advertising messages a day. As investigated by the New Citizenship Project this may be having potentially disastrous impacts on our levels of both environmental and societal engagement.

Meanwhile fewer and fewer of use our hands to actively make, whether professionally or personally, although the success of TV series such as the Great British Bake-off, Sewing Bee and Pottery Throw Down suggest a shift in engagement with making may be on its way. It could be argued that in making an object we better understand its value and that our disconnection with making, with fixing and repairing, feeds into and underpins our disposable culture.

We are in danger of losing valuable haptic skills on a societal scale. Happy Museum partners Clayground Collective in a research report Thinking Hands investigate the role of hand skills’ development in seeing, thinking and learning. The report references Anthropologist, Shirley Brice Heath who noted the dramatic decline of creative hand work among primary school children. ‘Most rarely drew or sketched except when directed by their teachers. Almost none worked with clay to mould shapes and figures or learned how to do intricate needlework’ Meanwhile in the medical profession, heads of department of surgery in the US had noticed changes in students’ capacities: “medical students ..today have no sense of how to use their hands in diagnostic work, for they have come to rely on technologies as their diagnostic tools.’

We are in danger of losing our connection with the simple act of touch – and although apparently simple this is not insignificant. As neurophysiologist Roger Lemon identifies in the report – ‘There are ten times as many channels of information feeding back from your hands to the brain as there are channels going out from your brain to your hands. Feedback or “sensory re-afference” happens every time you move, handle a tool or explore a new surface. We move, not to move the world, but to generate sensory feedback, called haptics.’

We need to reengage with objects as meaningful. As Happy Museum friend Paul Allen from the Centre for Alternative Technology commented – ‘Our current dilemma is caused by short lived, impossible to repair, high embodied energy, made thousands of miles away ‘things’. We need to engage with location of manufacture and provenance of materials, simplicity and appropriateness of design and ease of repair.’ We are disconnected from the fact that many of our towns and cities are where and how they are because of craft based industries using local resources eg Sheffield cutlery and Stoke pottery. On a deeper level we need to value and communicate the stories and narratives which lie within, seeing ourselves and objects not as separate but as part of a systemic whole.  The broader value of craft is outlined in this piece from Playing for Time by Lucy Neal and a call for a new relationship with the material world in a new materialism

As Bridget McKenzie, one of the co-authors of our original manifesto eloquently notes, ‘There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important than that we face the fact that we have made our planet unlivable by our fetish for things. And what is a museum, fundamentally, other than a monument to our fetish for things?’

The greatest opportunity for museums to lead Transition is to reshape the relationship between humans and objects. Unbridled economic growth has locked our identities to the things we possess. Our current individuality is shaped by what we own rather than the relationships we have with other people or our surroundings. As Happy Museum Founder, Tony Butler commented, “Museums have encouraged this. If they are not seduced by the glamour of treasure, they are overly concerned with narrative so that the sole purpose of objects is to tell a linear human story, invariably one of ‘progress’.”

Happy Museum has been experimenting for some time with this subject through its programme of funded commissions, engaging with the issue in a number of ways. The hands on people-centred design focus of the ReMake project at the Derby Silk Mill challenged the community to engage directly with the creation of a new Museum of Making. At Bilston Craft Gallery they worked with craft makers to explore creative play and the natural environment in Craftplay whilst engagement with traditional woodland crafts lay at the heart of Ceredigion Museum’s project Harvesting the Knowledge. Other commissions focused on our relationship with objects including Waste Not, the anti-upgrading exhibition at the Lightbox and object handling at the Imperial War Museum North.

We opened up the discussion further at an event in August 2015 in collaboration with Clayground Collective where participants left with new lines of enquiry, including ambitions to:

  • ‘Challenge organisations with a strict hands-off policy to engage with these questions more readily.’
  • Encourage museums to do much more to draw attention to embodied resources (not just media/materials but water and energy) and environmental impacts of the things they display, drawing attention to their origins.’
  • ‘Explore new ways for people to engage with historical collections, and how touch plays a big part in that. Whether that be encouraging someone to kneel down to view an object (and as they do this they notice that the surface of the floor feels cool), or simply moulding, holding or stroking an object and the effect that this has on anchoring the experience and stimulating new thoughts.’
  • ‘Explore how museums could use making informally. Understanding the potency that working with materials can have on our thinking – how can we insert some really simple hands on making into museums? Just using language to explain things might not be enough.’
  • ‘Focus on the role of making in terms of well-being.’

As long –term environmental activist and Editor of Resurgence Satish Kumar observed

‘Materialism degrades matter, museums can rise it up’

The challenge to museums is clear and Happy Museum is keen to investigate this further. If you are interested in becoming involved in this line of enquiry, or are already doing work which might be of interest, please contact us on happymuseumproject@gmail.com.

Hilary Jennings, Director, Happy Museum