A few weeks ago, at the MA Conference in Liverpool, the Happy Museum participated in a fascinating panel discussion.  The session, led by Maurice Davies, ued the MA’s Museums Change Lives as a starting point for imagining the future or museums.  Panellists were invited to imagine a new city was being constructed in the UK, with a population of c 100,000 – 200,000 and 50 miles from any existing city.  If we were in charge of plans for the city’s new museum service, and our board had read Museums Change Lives and given that to us as our brief, what we would we create for the citizens of the new city?

It was an intriguing and engaging premise.  There are many parallels between Museums Change Lives and Happy Museum thinking, which is itself underpinned by a belief that museums might help society imagine a different future (our Happy Museum Paper is subtitled A Tale of How it Might Turn Out Alright)

I spoke on behalf of Happy Museum and was joined on the panel by John Coburn, Digital Co-ordinator at Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums; Frank Olding, Heritage Officer at Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council and Esme Ward, Head of Learning and Engagement at Manchester Museum and Whitworth Art Gallery.

We had all worked independently within the overall brief – and hadn’t shared our presentations in advance of the event – but what emerged in the session was a surprisingly coherent and complementary narrative.

Happy Museum led off with a brief review of the global context in which the new city and museum would hope to survive and thrive.  Given the interlinked challenges of financial contraction, resource depletion, the end of cheap oil and climate change we posited a role for the museum to use its emerging collections and interpretation to encourage civic debate around fundamental questions such as: What do we eat? How do we move around? How do we stay warm and safe? How do we express ourselves emotionally and spiritually?  Where do we find joy? What do we need? How do we best use what we already have, and perhaps, most importantly, how much is enough?

The new museum would have a real opportunity to help our citizens imagine a positive future where we might consume less, be more mindful of our relationship with the environment, and create a more equal but no less interesting world.   Our vision was of a museum which was not only an inclusive institution but a participative one in which individuals are not only consumers or beneficiaries but co-creators of their own space – where they can ponder life’s complexities and think about the world differently.

See the full text HERE

The next speaker, John Coburn, designed a museum that would invest in ideas.  It would provoke ideas, support ideas and give ideas a platform to positively impact on civic and cultural life.

John believed museums could learn from the ethos of places like Battersea Arts Centre which uses a ‘scratch’ model to develop new artistic work and the New Museum in New York which provides space for around 70 people, supporting them to develop ideas linked to the museum’s focus on art, design and technology.

He suggested the new museum should be an ideas enabler not an experience provider and that it should promote collections as a starting point for ideas.

His slides can be found HERE

“Social impact is what museums are for,” said the next speaker, Frank Olding.  

He told delegates “The best museums are run by their communities, [At Blaenau Gwent] we don’t actually run any museums, we have five voluntary museums and we facilitate their work. Four of the five are accredited…. and if our museums are to have real social impact the trustees have to be drawn from the communities that the museums are there to help.”

Finally, Esme Ward took us back to the early days of the Manchester Art Museum, opened in Ancoats in 1886 by pioneering philanthropist Thomas Horsfall, suggesting a museum of the future could be inspired by a museum of the past.  She outlined many of the extraordinary things that happened there, such as a picture loan scheme to local schools, craft classes, lectures and other entertainments as well as family lectures by health visitors on hygiene, sanitation and cookery.

The full text of Esme’s presentation can be found HERE

The role of museums in supporting active citizenship – and the potential impact this could have on the civic realm – threaded through all four visions of the future.   However it appears there is nothing new in this world.  Bringing the session full circle Esme quoted from the Manchester Art Museum’s 1904 Annual Report;

It is not enough that in our rooms tired people may find pictures and other beautiful objects among which they may forget their weariness – or that from time to time Concerts, At Homes, and other gatherings bring the refreshment of music and good company to our neighbours… Alongside these other activities, therefore, we must develop and stimulate a healthy and vigorous sense of citizenship, which in time will find its expression in the work of our municipality.

Hilary Jennings, Happy Museum Associate