In the first of a series of blogs from our recent Symposium – Tony Butler, Happy Museum Director, talks about what we’ve learnt so far….

The Happy Museum was designed as a creative enquiry. Beginning with the Happy Museum- A Tale of How it Might Turn Out Alright it offered a proposition that museums had inherent qualities which could contribute to the creation of a more sustainable society. The paper concluded with an 8 point manifesto for well-being.

We’ve tested this premise by supporting 12 museums (so far)  to carry out work inspired by the 8 principles. The museums represent a cross-section of English museums, independent and local authority, large and small, National and volunteer run. The projects range from developing a museum as a playful space in Manchester to traditional farming and sustainable crafts in the Chilterns; working with the police and neighbourhood renewal teams in deprived wards in Reading  and bio-diversity in inner-city winter gardens in Lambeth.

Whilst these ideas seem to have cadence, we’ve also learnt that they impact on museums in different ways. Change varies depending on the size of organisations and role of individuals. The most significant learning through the work of the commissioned projects has been:

  • The greatest impacts so far are on individuals rather than organisations. For those commissions in large and medium sized organisations the interventions have been relatively small. Whilst they did not lead to major organisational change they caused individuals to think differently about their work and their place in the world. A number have taken Happy Museum thinking with them into new jobs (British Museum and Imperial War Museum) others have become more active within their own communities.  We sense that individuals, not organisations, are likely to have a greater impact on civil society.
  • A network is more powerful than a hierarchy. The Happy Museum community of practice and the role of the learning-evaluator has provided support and structure to individuals running small organisations or in junior roles in larger museums. Change has occurred ‘asymmetrically’; sideways and upwards as well as cascading downwards. For example the Imperial War Museum North Senior Management Team has taken up the Story of Change methodology used by Happy Museum to renew thinking about its vision.
  • There have been positive spill-over effects for organisations and their partners with transformative effects for some small organisations. Following its Happy Museum project, the Cinema Museum won a number of Volunteering London Awards and Godalming Museum spoke of future investment being geared towards skills rather than ‘things’.  The experience of being involved with the London Transport Museum project led homeless charity St Mungo’s to develop a project with the Museum of London.
  • A disproportionate level of influence.  Dr Piotr Bienkowski of the parallel Paul Hamlyn Foundation funded Our Museum project, described Happy Museum as ‘punching above its weight’, The London Transport Museum commission says “certainly, here it’s been larger than the money invested in it” especially through a cross –departmental approach not seen on community projects before.  The Happy Museum brand also has a currency. Even sceptics conceded that Happy Museum was readily recognisable.
  • Linking well-being to environmental sustainability is more difficult than it looks – Most applications from both rounds appeared extremely comfortable with well-being, especially in ‘policy’ terms, for example there were a number of projects which sought to develop relationships with NHS trusts or carry out intergenerational learning or reminiscence – all laudable but they did not connect with the wider social and environmental aims of Happy Museum. Whilst most of the commissioned museums understood the links between well-being and the environment, only a few made explicit connections within their projects. Well-being in isolation is an ‘easier sell’ than the trickier implications of setting well-being in the context of less conspicuous consumption, low growth, or environmental stewardship. Godalming Museum made the connection in its work with green community groups and more of the Round two commissions were able to make the explicit link (for example Chiltern and Garden Museums).
  • The power of speaking openly about the bigger issues and the wider context – People from participating museums and guests at the symposium relished the opportunity to think more deeply and speak openly about wider social and environmental issues. The design of the programme included gatherings and workshops where each museum could be interrogated by their peers about their work.


  • Measuring what matters is important – but hard. Of all the principles, this one showed the biggest disparity between how important commissions felt it was, and how easy is was to implement.
  • An eight point manifesto was too complicated and at times obtuse. Whilst the manifesto offered guidance to museums to deliver happy museum principles, some of its points were not readily understood and require modification

So following a year-long exposure and the experience of the six commission projects, the Happy Museum project will simplify its vision from

High well-being, sustainable museum practice contributing to civic life



Museums that foster wellbeing that doesn’t cost the earth.

– I’ll blog about how we’ll use a modified set of principles to achieve this next week.