The DCMS have recently published a report Culture, Sport and Wellbeing, and analysis of the Taking Part Survey which focuses on the extent to which engagement with culture and sport is associated with happiness.

Tony Butler, Chair of the Happy Museum Project and Director of Derby Museums comments – ‘It is interesting and really good to see more studies into health and well being and culture – however I would sound a note of caution’

He notes that the report explicitly does not link causality to the statistics and to really understand the headlines they need to be linked. He went on to observe that its findings appear contrary to the research report Museums and Happiness by Daniel Fujiwara of the London School of Economics, published by Happy Museum in 2013. This report which valued visiting museums as twice as high as participation in sport or arts and taken together might show that while people might not feel instantaneously higher levels of well-being, from visiting museums they still value them.

Mandy Barnett – Happy Museum Head of Research and Development goes on to add ‘As our Chair Tony Butler says, it’s good to see the sector more engaged with this kind of analysis, but there is also a risk that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing – or at least, a partially-useful thing.

She also observes that the report, despite using similar data and expertise, has a different finding to the Happy Museum 2013 report which shows wellbeing associated with museums (to the value of £3k). She would be interested to understand how it builds on the DCMS’ own report from 2014. ‘It’s great that we’re on this journey, but we need to continue the journey.’

‘As well as robust research we need to be empowered as a sector. How many of us understand what statistical significance really means, and the difference between causality and association? How do we start to learn what is (or is not) making the difference? In the apparently negative result for libraries is it because libraries make us miserable, or because less cheerful people tend to use libraries? Taking Part data allows us to ‘control for’ a variety of things; it tells us about where people live, their family and social life, education, employment and earnings, general health, their age, gender, race and religion – but not everything.’

Happy Museum created the LIFE survey with Daniel Fujiwara to start to try and address some of this. It asks the same happiness question (broadly) as Taking Part and the ONS, and starts to uncover what it is in museums that does and doesn’t create wellbeing. The first participating museums were Happy Museum commissions Derby, Lightbox and Woodhorn as well as Glasgow and North Lincolnshire Museums who self-surveyed, and the British Museum and National Maritime Museum who were professionally surveyed. National Museums Liverpool did their own survey and analysis.

The most significant results – on learning and feelings, were seen in North Lincolnshire Museum in Scunthorpe, the smallest of the museums. Theirs were highly participatory locally embedded projects and all the people surveyed were either volunteers or participants. Happy Museum commissions Derby and Woodhorn also showed a wellbeing effect. In Derby’s co-production Re:Make project, there was a relationship between the approach and visitors’ life satisfaction (a longer term measure of wellbeing than happiness). In Woodhorn’s Comedian in Residence project staff and participants felt life was more worthwhile. The other museums, showed less, or no wellbeing effect.

Ongoing, robust research could use the LIFE survey. It asks about wellbeing outcomes Learning, Interaction, Feelings and Environmental awareness, alongside questions about what people have been doing in museums. It could be part of a ‘high burden of proof’ quasi-experimental approach, a recommendation that came out of our work with others on Towards Plan A.

Mandy goes on to comment that ‘Alongside this rigorous analysis, we need some interpretation in plain English which the whole sector can understand. We’d like to work together with the DCMS and are happy to offer the LIFE survey for wider use. Regarding the latter, we are working with partners on an exchange network Make Culture Work. We’d be happy for people to get in touch on either.’

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