What can museums do to improve the nation’s wellbeing?

This was the question posed at The Feel Good Museum, an event organised by the Midlands Federation of Museums and Art Galleries. Sian Thurgood and I went along to introduce The Happy Museum Project, outline plans at London Transport Museum and get people thinking about measuring what matters.

Peter Field, the President of the Midlands Federation, kicked things off by talking about the power of collections and the flexibility of what you can do with them. He argued for the importance of advocacy and the need to be able to explain the important role that museums can play in well-being, something which we picked up in our later sessions.

Inspiring case studies came from Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage, Staffordshire Heritage and Arts and Leicestershire Arts and Heritage. Angela Tombs and Thanh-Giang Vo from Wolverhampton gave an overview of the huge amount of well-being work they do, focusing on their work with dementia patients. Chris Copp from Staffordshire gave a very honest account of his experience working with young offenders. The team from Leicestershire, Brian Kennedy, Andrea Bridge and Nicky Clayton, talked about a variety of projects, including intergenerational work and their Open Museum scheme working with the mental health sector. A theoretical grounding was given to the day by Myra Trustram from Manchester City Galleries, who discussed the distinctive ways that museums can aid health.

Sian and I contributed to the day by asking everyone to think about the five ways to wellbeing and how we can start to measure what matters. We started out by asking everyone to write down on post-it notes a few things that made them happy and to keep hold of them. After we introduced the Happy Museum Project and outlined our plans at London Transport Museum we returned to the happy post-its. Around the room were nef’s five ways to wellbeing; give, keep learning, take notice, connect and be active. We asked everyone to add their post-it notes to the relevant area of wellbeing. Activities that made people happy ranged from spending time with families, visiting museums and foreign holidays to drinking gin and eating cheese. Most importantly everyone could see how the things that made them happy linked to at least one of the ways to wellbeing.

The rest of our Happy Museum session looked at measuring what matters. We introduced an imaginary case study; Yorkshire Pudding Museum running a project in partnership with their local Mind group to co-create an exhibition exploring What does the Yorkshire Pudding mean to people? We asked people to work in groups and explore what they would want the project to achieve, linking to the five ways to wellbeing, and how they would measure this. We wanted to challenge people to think about what the really important outcomes for the project were and if there were more interesting ways of measuring these, aside from simply numbers.

People wanted to find out the impact of the project on the museum (had it increased access, did the project lead to new research) and on the participants (levels of confidence and social interaction, willingness to travel, did participants continue to develop knowledge and skills after the project). Ideas for how to measure were equally diverse, from recording participants and observation to mapping journeys and monitoring social media use. We also had a group discussion on the pros and cons of relying on photography and video as a measuring tool, considering the importance of getting permission and how this can’t be guaranteed. One of the groups suggested asking the participants what matters to them, and to suggest ways of measuring this; giving some of the responsibility for project evaluation to the participants. This stuck me as incredibly sensible and will definitely be an idea that I use in my Happy Museum project.

Huge thanks go to the Walsall leather Museum for having us and Carol Thompson for inviting us to The Feel Good Museum.
Hannah Guthrie

London Transport Museum