Action research with our Community of Practice

Measuring what matters is at the heart of what we do with both action and academic research and development (R&D).  Twenty-two competitively commissioned museums conduct our action research, and make up a Community of Practice brought together for development days. Open events and invited symposium attendees give a very diverse voice to our learning.

We also evaluate our online presence, using analytical tools we learnt from colleagues at Oxford Internet Institute who worked with Gwynedd Museum on Whats Your Story?

Our regular Learning & Evaluation Reports summarise learning so far about How to be a Happy Museum and how to run a national programme.

Measure what matters tools

Our Happy Museums have devised and tested various approaches to evaluation. For example,

  • Reading developed a Time Capsule to baseline and review community opinion
  • The Story Museum used the  and Mood Tree with staff and audiences
  • The Beaney embedded their evaluation in ‘happiness prescriptions’

The results are before-and-after tools for organisational and personal change. We were invited to present these low-tech approaches to the Warwick Commission alongside our sophisticated academic research.

The role of the individual and museums’ USP

Early on we learnt that personal passion was important to Happy Museums, and we added the principle of active citizenship for both staff and volunteers, and participants and audience.  But we also keep an eye on what is unique about museums; traditionally their collections and buildings and increasingly their social capital and civic role.

We have commissioned for specific learning, craft and digital action research that we felt would contribute strongly. This generated a broad range of ‘making’ projects from Abergavenny, Bilston, Derby and Ceredigion museums and a new crowd-sourcing app What’s Your Story? At Gwynedd Museum.

Museums’ role in the community

Our Happy Museums tend to partner in the community and voluntary world or with the arts, more than the statutory sector.  They focus at population level with a positively focused ‘asset base’.  Collaborations are diverse and bring new audiences; Godalming worked with public school Charterhouse, and London Transport Museum the homeless charity St Mungo’s; several of our museums work with their local Transition groups.  Their mutual relationships are simple good marketing as well as an ethical imperative.

Organisational change

Happy Museum has often been a trigger for wider organisational change, with some using the principles to shape their operations.  This has been particularly so when the investment was timed before a capital project for example.

Academic research

The Happy Museum manifesto was influenced by the likes of Martin Seligman, and has been throughout by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s ideas about ‘flow’.  But we also do our own academic research, initially commissioning wellbeing economist Daniel Fujiwara to value wellbeing using the secondary data set from Taking Part.  He wrote Museums and Happiness, with interesting learning and some useful knock on effects.  The work helped us to clarify our normative principles – what we think should happen in a Happy Museum.  And our R&D lead Mandy Barnett and Daniel were invited to contribute to the work of the RSA and ACE on Towards Plan A.  Daniel went on to further research for AHRC, ACE and the DCMS.

‘The Wellbeing Valuation method is a valid alternative to more traditional methods of valuation, such as asking people their willingness to pay. The methodology can derive valid and plausible measures of value for a range of non-market goods and services. It is based on people’s actual experiences and puts at the centre of the analysis what ultimately matters to us: the welfare and wellbeing of society.’ Daniel Fujiwara


The results of Museums and Happinesss surprised us by showing participation value to be lower than audience value.  The natural development of this work was to create our own primary evidence.

We worked with Daniel and colleagues to develop the LIFE survey, building on our action and academic research and sources like the GLOs.  ‘LIFE’ stands for the museum wellbeing outcomes Learning, Interaction, Feelings and care for Environment.

We promoted the LIFE survey to 46 museums but in the end only 7 took part, providing useful learning about what works.  They were Commissions Derby Museums, Woodhorn and the Lightbox, with Glasgow, North Lincolnshire and NML running their own surveys and the British Museum and National Maritime Museum supprted by our team.  The challenges were that museums didn’t have the time or resources, found setting up a control group hard, and were uncomfortable asking personal questions of participants.  The questions are also not ‘validated’ (tested and assured) for children and young people.

Later on we worked with Kathryn Eccles of the Oxford Internet Institute on an online tool which in time we will develop into a museum app.

Alongside this some museums did their own academic research.  For example Derby Museums tested the effects of making on the body’s physical wellbeing, Manchester Museum worked with play consultants and academics to create their playful museum, and Gwynedd worked with ‘nudge’ techniques.

Delivering a distributed national programme

Our evaluation also reports on running a national programme. We are explicit about working with ‘ innovators’ and moving on to ‘early adopters’ next.  We allow projects to be locally-led using a Story of Change which we consolidate nationally and we know things may get worse before they get better, using a Transformation Cycle to help museums through.

Work in Progress

There are three areas of work in progress:

We have developed the LIFE survey, sharing the online tool with a self-analysis approach for museums.  With a larger dataset we will then test the value of the individual elements, and more on what makes the difference, from demographics to museum role.

With limited resources we are always looking to streamline.  We are working with national partners Julie’s Bicycle and Museums Galleries Scotland to consolidate performance measures for museums, starting with a focus on environmental evidence.

Finally Applying Happy Museum learning from the Story of Change will have a direct impact on the ‘social value’ of museums, which is short-hand for the triple-bottom-line of economic, social and environmental impacts. This is an accepted part of policy-making, referred to in HM Treasury’s guide to evaluation:

The full value of goods such as health, educational success, family and community stability, and environmental assets [which] cannot simply be inferred from market prices.

Supporting museums to demonstrate their social value comes next.